For all practical intents, USF's flickering NIT hopes were extinguished by a deluge of Connecticut 3-pointers Thursday.
The ninth-seeded Huskies (16-16) hit nine 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes ― an American Athletic Conference tournament record for a half — and survived some late foul trouble to eliminate the Bulls, 80-73, in Thursday’s opening round at FedEx Forum in Memphis.
“Defensively, we didn’t play as well as we need to play to beat a team that is as explosive offensively at the guard spot as they are,” Bulls second-year coach Brian Gregory said.
USF (19-13), loser of seven of its last nine, awaits its postseason fate. An invitation to the 32-team NIT now seems remote, though the Bulls could land a spot in the 16-team College Basketball Invitational.
The Huskies’ long-range barrage stood in glaring contrast to their 60-58 triumph against the Bulls 11 in Storrs 11 days ago, when they finished 0-for-15 from the 3-point line.
On Thursday, they went on a 24-3 first-half run, during which they went 6-for-6 from long range, for a 37-19 lead. Senior guard Christian Vital (game-high 25 points) had four of his five treys during that stretch.
“When you’ve got a team that can shoot the ball, if you give them some open ones and they get it going, they start making some tough ones and that’s what we did,” Gregory said.
UConn still led 70-55 when Huskies standout guard Jalen Adams (19 points, five assists) fouled out with 4:06 to go, but managed only one field goal the rest of the game as the Bulls staged a modest rally.
The Bulls trimmed their deficit to five, 73-68, on David Collins’ step-back 3-pointer with 34 seconds remaining, but never got closer as UConn hit seven of its last eight free throws.
For the game, UConn finished 13-for-24 from 3-point range. Point guard Laquincy Rideau, sidelined the previous two games with a foot injury, led USF with 19 points and seven assists.
“I thought he was better,” Gregory said. “You can see out there he is not at 100 percent. ... You saw a little bit of what we were before he got hurt in the first (UCF) game (on Feb. 13).”