MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Sean Kilpatrick's layup attempt danced tauntingly on the rim before falling away. His shot may have had a bit too much oomph.
Kilpatrick's miss with 3 seconds left and a volleyball bounce as the final buzzer sounded, sent No. 15 Cincinnati to a 58-56 loss to No. 21 Connecticut in the semifinals of the American Conference tournament Friday night.
"The only empty possession we had in the last 3 minutes was the missed layup at the end, and that stuff happens, Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said.
UConn star guard Shabazz Napier was guarding Kilpatrick as the Cincinnati guard brought the ball up court. As Kilpatrick drove, Napier forced him back inside where taller Huskies like DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah were waiting.
"I just seen the ball go in the air," Napier said. "I thought it was going to go down, but he put too much spin on it, and it went out the other way. My big guys definitely was smacking the ball up in the air, just in case one of them guys was trying to grab it and that buzzer sounded off."
The final play capped a thrilling finish after the Bearcats chipped into the Huskies' lead with 2:18 remaining. Kilpatrick converted a 3-pointer, and after a jumper by Napier, Cincinnati scored on a dunk by Shaquille Thomas. When Jermaine Sanders, who had just entered the game, connected on a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left, Cincinnati was within 57-56.
When Napier missed the second of two free throws with 12 seconds left, Kilpatrick scrambled up-court trying for the winning basket.
"It seems like every time we play Cincy, it comes down to a one-possession game," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "They're well-coached. They play so hard, and I thought we just stood up to them. We stayed in the middle of the ring and kept throwing punches."
The Huskies (26-7) were barred from last year's tournament in the Big East and the NCAA tournament, and now they are back in their first tournament final since 2011 when they won the national championship. They will play another former Big East team for the inaugural American tournament title Saturday in No. 5 Louisville, a 94-65 winner over Houston.
Cincinnati (27-6) lost to UConn for the second straight time and missed out on its second tournament final in three years.
Cronin said his focus now is on returning home and getting his Bearcats some rest for the NCAA tournament as he's already thinking of the bracket announcement Sunday.
Napier finished with 15 points. DeAndre Daniels had 14 points and nine rebounds. Ryan Boatright added 13, and Niles Giffey had 11 on 4-of-5 shooting, including 3 of 4 from 3-point range for UConn. Amida Brimah had seven rebounds and four blocks, three in the second half.
Kilpatrick finished with 14 points for Cincinnati, while Justin Jackson and Jermaine Sanders had 10 each. Jackson grabbed eight rebounds. Sanders' 3 with 12.2 seconds left from the top of the key set the stage for the final finish.
This was the tiebreaker between the teams after each won on home court this season. It also became the sixth straight game between these teams were decided by six or fewer points, and they've split with three each. This was their first game on a neutral court since UConn knocked the Bearcats out of the NCAA tournament on its way to the national title.
UConn shot better from 3-point range connecting on 53.8 percent (7 of 13) including 4 of 5 in the second half. Overall, the Huskies shot 44 percent. Meanwhile Cincinnati was limited to 38 percent.
The big difference was at the free-throw line where UConn converted 15 of 18 with 11 of 13 coming in the second half compared to Cincinnati who went 6 of 13, hitting all two attempts in the second half. Cronin noted they didn't take those two free throws until the final 2 minutes.
Cincinnati built its 31-27 halftime lead to as much as seven a couple times, the last at 39-32. The Huskies scored 11 of the next 13 points, including nine straight, and Boatright's 3-pointer put them ahead 43-41 with 9:32 left for their first lead since 23-21. Troy Caupain ended a nearly 6-minute scoring drought for Cincinnati with a layup with 8:10 remaining only to see Boatright hit his second straight 3-pointer.
Sanders ended a 17-2 run by UConn with a 3-pointer with 3:24 to go, the first of three he hit down the stretch.