PHILADELPHIA - Connecticut relied on its skill and experience to avoid an historic upset.
Marcus Williams scored a season-high 21 points and Denham Brown added 17, helping the top-seeded Huskies overcome a 12-point, second-half deficit to beat 16th-seeded Albany 72-59 on Friday night.
An overwhelming underdog in its first NCAA tournament appearance, Albany spent a week proclaiming, “Why Not Us?” The Great Danes then went out and made a good run at becoming the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“They shocked us into such a state that they put us in a situation where I witnessed our poorest offensive effort in 20 years at UConn,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. “I never saw us look like that. They were magnificent for the first 30 minutes. We were equally magnificent for the final 10.”
Calhoun was so impressed by Albany’s effort that he walked over to Great Danes coach Will Brown after the game and hugged a man he’d only met once before.
“I said, ‘You guys are special.”’ Calhoun said.
Connecticut (28-3) plays Sunday against Kentucky in the second round of the Washington Regional.
Jamar Wilson had 19 points and Kirsten Zoellner and Lucious Jordan each had 12 for Albany (21-11).
“For us to play UConn and be up 12 points, and three years ago we wouldn’t be in the same building, that’s an amazing accomplishment,” Wilson said.
From the start, Albany played like it belonged on the same floor with one of the nation’s perennial powerhouse programs. No one thought Albany could match Connecticut’s depth and talent — except for the Great Danes.
An upstate New York institution of 16,000, Albany never had a winning season in nine years at the Division I level until now, and finished 5-23 just two years ago.
But Albany led 50-38 points 8½ minutes into the second half, before the Huskies went on a 20-4 run.
“All five starters for UConn will be playing in the NBA one day,” Brown said. “For us to challenge them with six minutes left, that says a lot about our program. Why not us? They believed. We had fun with it and it was a good ride.”
Josh Boone started Connecticut’s comeback with a layup, Williams hit a 3-pointer and went end-to-end for a layup following a turnover as the Huskies closed to 50-45.
After Jordan made a spinning shot for Albany, Brown hit a 3-pointer, Jeff Adrien got a dunk and Brown tied it at 52 with two free throws.
A 3-pointer by Williams from the left circle gave Connecticut a 55-52 lead with 5:48 left and the Huskies never trailed again.
Williams’ fifth 3-pointer put Connecticut ahead 61-55, and Brown made another 3 to extend the lead to 66-55.
“Playing a No. 16 seed, sometimes you think they are going to lie down and give us the win,” Williams said. “We need to go out and take the first hit.”
A 21½-point favorite, Connecticut only led 31-30 at halftime. A 13-0 run early in the second half gave Albany a 43-33 lead.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
On the same court earlier, 16th-seeded Monmouth pushed top-seeded Villanova before losing 58-45 in the Minneapolis Regional.
The Great Danes did even better than the Hawks.
“A No. 16 seed is going to beat a No. 1,” Calhoun said. “The gap is closing.”
Jordan hit a 3-pointer from the top of the circle for Albany’s first points 2:59 into the game, and the Great Danes took a 9-3 lead. Connecticut committed nine turnovers before Albany had one, but led 16-15 at that point.
Connecticut was No. 1 in The Associated Press poll for five weeks this season. In the previous nine years, the Huskies won 22 games in the NCAA tournament, including two national titles (1999 and 2004).
Connecticut, ranked second in the final poll, averaged 81.3 points a game this season in finishing as co-champions of the Big East. The Huskies lost to Syracuse in overtime in the quarterfinals of their conference tournament but were still chosen as a No. 1 seed for the fourth time.
That resume alone might have been enough to fluster some teams.
The Great Danes weren’t intimidated.
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