New Year’s Eve is usually filled with electricity, and inside Hofheinz Pavilion the mood was no different. A crowd of 4,035 Houston faithful welcomed No. 17 University of Connecticut for the first American Athletic Conference game in school history — they were not disappointed.
Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier connected on two free throws to give his team a three-point lead with 1:42 remaining, but UH didn’t panic and made clutch shots and free throws to capture the 75-71 win. Despite blowing an 18-point first-half lead, the Cougars stood tall behind the play of sophomore guard Jherrod Stiggers, who drilled a game-tying 3-pointer with a hand in his face.
Junior forward TaShawn Thomas and senior guard Tione Womack made 4-4 free throw attempts in the last 10 seconds to finish finish off the upset bid. Thomas, who finished with a team-high 23 points, said he was battling more than nerves in the “biggest free throws” of his life.
“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. They called a timeout right before I went to the line, and it helped me out because I was able to recover,” Thomas said.
After Thomas drilled both attempts at the charity stripe to give UH the lead Napier rushed down the court to quickly tie the game. Thomas ended the Huskies’ hopes with a block before Womack’s free throws sealed it. After arguably the biggest win of his tenure at UH, head coach James Dickey said the Cougars need to grow from this win.
“We have to build on this win. I told the guys after the game enjoy the win for 24 hours you deserve it. Once we come back we put this win behind us, and look at the film for South Florida. It’s one game, but what it shows is if you play together as a team a lot of good things can happen.”
For the Cougars to win, they needed to start fast, and get Thomas involved — UH accomplished both. UH jumped out to a 10-2 run to start the game, and carried that momentum all the way to a 46-28 halftime lead. Thomas finished the first half with a team leading 12 points.
Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie said the Huskies lacked a spark in the first half.
“We weren’t ready to play, and that’s my fault. What we show now is that we get down, and then we start playing. We’ve been playing in spurts all season, and we’re not good enough to do that.”
The second half was a different story. Connecticut came out in the second half on an mission, and before the Cougars could even comprehend what had hit them the Huskies had produced a 21-3 run to open the half. A Niels Giffey dunk with 12:49 remaining tied the game for the first time.
Napier stole the show. After the Cougars held Napier to two pints in the first half he exploded for 25 more in the second, but UH was able to weather the storm after the Huskies made their push.
Dickey said the Cougars still need to put two halves together.
“We didn’t play great for the full 40 minutes. The first half was as well as we played in a long time. We talked at halftime that the most insignificant stat is the halftime score.” Dickey said, “We knew they’d make a run, but we had guys to make plays down the stretch.”
The Cougars will have an opportunity to build on the signature win when they face USF on Saturday.