PHILADELPHIA (AP)—Advancing to the regional semifinals provided Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun with a strong feeling of accomplishment.
Beating Kentucky made it even more special.
Connecticut took control early, then survived a furious comeback bid by the Wildcats and held on for an 87-83 victory Sunday in the NCAA tournament.
The eagerly anticipated first meeting between the two high-profile programs proved well worth the wait. Although No. 1 seed Connecticut never trailed after the opening five minutes, the Huskies couldn’t wrap up the win until Rudy Gay made two free throws with 3.3 seconds left.
“It’s amazing that we were playing Kentucky for the first time,” Calhoun said, “but we’re trying to earn (recognition) as a lead program in America, and hopefully we continue to do that. It was obviously a tremendous, tremendous basketball game.”
Marcus Williams scored 20 points, including four clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds, and Gay had 19 for Connecticut (29-3), which next faces the University of Washington in the semifinals of the Washington Regional.
Last year, Connecticut was eliminated in the second round by North Carolina State. The Huskies made amends for that performance, however, by defeating a Kentucky team that wouldn’t quit after falling behind by 13 points in the second half.
“Kentucky gave us a great shot,” Calhoun said, “but we’re going to D.C.”
After losing to Syracuse in the Big East tournament quarterfinals, UConn struggled in its first-round win over Albany. Calhoun hopes this victory will provide the Huskies with a much-needed shot of confidence.
“Sometimes I’d like to see them with more swagger,” Calhoun said. “Perhaps we’ll walk out of here with that kind of swagger.”
Patrick Sparks scored a career-high tying 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting for No. 8 seed Kentucky (22-13), which failed to reach the round of 16 for only the third time in the last 12 seasons. The Wildcats are 3-8 against No. 1 seeds since the selection committee began using seeds in 1979.
“We made some runs at them and had an opportunity,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “When you have an opportunity to play against a No. 1 seed, you have to raise your level of play. We did. They’re a very talented team, a team I think is capable of winning it all.”
Kentucky and Connecticut have combined for nine NCAA titles, including three of the last eight, but this was the first time they got together on the basketball court.
At first, the matchup appeared to be a mismatch. UConn led by 12 at halftime and 13 with 13:37 remaining, but that’s when the Wildcats finally found their shooting touch.
It was 66-57 before Kentucky’s Sheray Thomas scored from the baseline and Bobby Perry added a 3-pointer to get the Wildcats within four with 7:58 left.
After UConn upped the margin back to eight, Thomas hit a 3-pointer and Rajon Rondo beat the shot clock with a 3-pointer during a 10-4 spree that got Kentucky to 74-72 with 3:16 to go.
The Huskies built their lead back to eight, but Sparks hit a 3-pointer and Thomas made a layup to get the Wildcats within two with 53 seconds to play.
Williams made two foul shots before Perry hit a layup to make it 83-81. Then, after Williams made two more free throws and Perry scored on a putback, Gay iced it at the line.
Kentucky lost despite 17-for-30 shooting in the second half, including 7-for-14 from 3-point range after a 1-for-10 performance in the first 20 minutes. Sparks, a senior, scored 16 after halftime.
“I didn’t want it to be my last game,” Sparks said. “I was able to hit some 3’s at the end, trying to get us back, but it just wasn’t enough.”
After falling behind by 12 points in each of its previous two games, Connecticut was determined to reverse the trend by getting off to a good start — and did just that.
Beginning with Hilton Armstrong’s dunk off the opening tap, the Huskies were sharp at the outset on both ends of the court.
In building a 25-12 lead, UConn made six of its first eight shots and got four 3-pointers from Rashad Anderson, who was held scoreless by Albany. Kentucky, in contrast, missed nine of its first 12 shots and had six turnovers in the first 11 minutes.
It was 33-20 before the Wildcats made three baskets in a 24-second span to get within seven. Minutes later, Shargari Alleyne ended Kentucky’s 0-for-9 drought from 3-point range to make it a six-point game.
But UConn closed the half with an 8-2 spurt to make it 43-31.
“We’ve been fighting from behind a lot this year, and it was no different this game,” Sparks said. “It shows what kind of toughness and character this team’s got. I give us a lot of credit for fighting the whole way.”