Houston beats No. 17 Connecticut 75-71Houston' Danrad Knowles dunks over Connecticut's Omar Calhoun (21) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Bob Levey)
HOUSTON (AP) -- TaShawn Thomas stepped to the free throw line for what he called the biggest free throws of his life.
Houston had blown a 21-point lead but Thomas would not let the Cougars fall, coming up big on the offensive and then defensive end in the final 10 seconds.
Thomas scored 23 points, including two free throws with 9 seconds left, and blocked a late layup by Shabazz Napier as Houston rallied for a 75-71 victory over No. 17 Connecticut on Tuesday night in the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams.
Thomas was 8 of 15 from the field and 7 of 8 from the free throw line and grabbed eight rebounds for Houston (9-5, 1-0), which defeated a ranked team for the first time since beating Central Florida on Jan. 8, 2011.
Thomas drove to the basket and put up a jumper with 9 seconds left but was fouled by Tyler Olander. Thomas made both free throws to put Houston up by two points.
''Those were the biggest free throws of my life, because one, I couldn't see; I got hit in the eye two plays before, and two, if I made them, it was going to put us in a good place,'' Thomas said. ''They called a timeout right before I went to the line and it helped me out because I was able to recover. Jherrod (Stiggers) just kept telling me I better get it right and make the last two free throws.''
Napier drove coast-to-coast but Thomas blocked his layup and Tione Womack grabbed the rebound and was fouled. Womack hit two free throws to give Houston the four-point lead with 2 seconds left.
Trailing 71-68, Stiggers tied it with a 3-pointer with just over a minute remaining. Napier missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 38 seconds left.
''I knew TaShawn was going to drive and kick it out, and I knew I was going to shoot it, but I didn't know I was going to have to double clutch it because he hit my arm a little bit,'' Stiggers said. ''It was a big moment. It felt good, but I knew I had to get back and play defense.''
Stiggers added 17 points and Danrad Knowles had 13 points and nine rebounds for the Cougars, who shot 49 percent from the field.
Napier scored 25 of his 27 points in the second half as he led the Huskies (11-2, 0-1) back from a 21-point first-half deficit to hold a lead with just over a minute remaining.
''Once again we got down by a big margin,'' Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. ''We have to play. We weren't ready to play and that's my fault. I'll try to find some tough guys but what we're showing now; we get down, and then that's when we start playing. We play in spurts, and I've been telling y'all that this whole season. We can't play in spurts, because we're not good enough.''
Ryan Boatright finished with 19 points and nine assists, and DeAndre Daniels added 12 points for Connecticut.
''We played terrible,'' Boatright said. ''They beat us in every category of the basketball game. We got back in the game simply because we are more talented than them, but they came to play.''
Napier's only points in the first half came on two free throws with 4 seconds left. He started the second half by scoring 14 of the Huskies' first 21 points as part of a 21-3 run that tied the game at 49 with 12:55 left on a dunk by Niels Giffey.
Connecticut took its first lead of the game on a 3 by Daniels with 3:40 remaining that made it 67-64.
''We got back and felt like we could have taken the lead and kept it,'' Napier said. ''We weren't able to rebound and get the stops necessary at that time. It was kind of difficult. If we would have played the way we were supposed to play in the first half, we would have won by 15 points. We just played bad.''
The Cougars jumped to a 10-2 lead in the first 4 1/2 minutes on two 3s by LeRon Barnes and two jumpers by Thomas, prompting Ollie to call a timeout.
Houston upped its lead to 20-8 with 11:53 left in the first half on a layup by Stiggers, prompting another Connecticut timeout.
The Cougars pushed the lead to 45-24 on two free throws by Jaaron Simmons with 2:25 left and led 46-28 at halftime.
''We talked the entire portion of halftime about that being the most insignificant stat there is: the halftime score,'' Houston coach James Dickey said. ''We knew they would make a run, but we didn't want them to make a run to let them take the go-ahead 3. Then down the stretch we had a lot of guys make plays. It took a total team effort.''