Hartford, CT (SportsNetwork.com) - The second-ever American Athletic Conference champion will be crowned Sunday after a battle between the sixth- seeded and defending national champion Connecticut Huskies take on the 20th- ranked and top-seeded SMU Mustangs at the XL Center.
The winner also advances to the NCAA Tournament by way of the league's automatic bid.
When the postseason rolls around, it seems Connecticut goes on a perpetual path of destruction. The Huskies took down South Florida (69-43) in the first round of the AAC playoffs, then slipped by third-seeded Cincinnati (57-54) and second-seeded Tulsa (47-42). The Huskies have a chance to take down all three of the top seeds.
But SMU won't go down easily. The Larry Brown-led Mustangs toyed with the nation's top 25 all season long and head into the championship game ranked No. 20. They helped their cause on Saturday with a convincing 69-56 victory over Temple in the semifinal round of the tournament.
The squads met twice during the regular season and split the series, with each team winning on its home court. But UConn took on SMU at the XL Center early in March, and postponed the Mustangs from clinching the top seed in the tourney with a resounding 81-73 victory.
UConn locked in a defensive struggle with Tulsa on Saturday, and the Huskies emerged victorious after holding the Golden Hurricane to a mere 29.6 percent shooting. No Tulsa player was able to record a scoring figure in double digits, though Shaquille Harrison came close with nine points. The Huskies just needed to outpace the Hurricane, and they did by shooting 36.2 percent from the floor with a 7-of-16 mark from 3-point range. Ryan Boatright collected 21 points to lead all scorers, while NC State transfer Rodney Purvis netted 11 and star freshman Daniel Hamilton grabbed 12 rebounds.
Boatright has owned the distinction of league's top scorer for months now. The 5-foot-10 explosive guard averages 17.7 ppg to lead both UConn and the AAC, and adds 128 assists with 49 steals to pace the Huskies in both categories. Purvis and Hamilton each chip in 10.8 ppg for a UConn squad that nets 64.5 ppg on the season. Defensively, the Huskies are limiting teams to just 59.7 ppg on 39.3 percent shooting from the floor. Purvis netted 28 points to lead UConn past SMU just two weeks ago, while Boatright contributed 23 points in the same venue in which the championship tilt is taking place.
SMU proved to be the vastly superior team Saturday as the Mustangs quickly shrugged aside Temple after holding the Owls to 29.3 percent shooting. The Ponies hit on 47.2 percent of their shots from the floor, and were led by Markus Kennedy's beastly effort off the bench. Kennedy netted 17 points with nine rebounds, while Cannen Cunningham and Yanick Moreira each chipped in with 11 points. Sterling Brown nearly notched a double-double with eight points and 10 rebounds as SMU coasted to victory.
Nic Moore contributed seven points with six assists on Saturday, which didn't do anything for his team-leading 14.3 ppg mark, though the star guard added to his team-best 169 assists (5.3 apg leads the AAC). Kennedy didn't start a single game all season long, but still finished second on the squad with 11.6 ppg, adding in 6.1 rpg to finish behind Moreira's team-best 6.4 boards per outing. The Mustangs ranked first in the conference in scoring, netting 69.7 on 48.3 percent shooting, and limited opponents to 59.9 ppg. Kennedy had 18 points and nine boards to lead SMU the last time they took on UConn, but it wasn't enough to beat the Huskies in Hartford.