HOUSTON (AP) _ Connecticut had erased a double-digit lead once this season for a win and appeared on the verge of doing it again in Houston.
Behind a sensational second-half performance by Shabazz Napier, the 17th-ranked Huskies held a lead late but could not hold on.
TaShawn Thomas scored 23 points, including two free throws with 9 seconds left, and blocked a late layup by Napier as Houston rallied for a 75-71 victory Tuesday night in the American Athletic Conference opener for both teams.
Napier scored 25 of his 27 points in the second half as he led the Huskies (11-2, 0-1) back from a 21-point first-half deficit to hold a lead with just over a minute remaining.
Napier said he didn’t bring the energy the first half.
“I’m the captain,” the senior said. “It starts with myself. I am one of the veterans, and I didn’t bring it. I have no clue why I didn’t play up to my capabilities. I didn’t bring it that first half.”
Ryan Boatright finished with 19 points and nine assists, and DeAndre Daniels added 12 points for Connecticut, which erased a 14-point first-half deficit against Washington on Dec. 22 in an 82-70 win.
“We played terrible,” Boatright said. “They beat us in every category of the basketball game. We got back in the game simply because we are more talented than them, but they came to play.”
Thomas was 8 of 15 from the field and 7 of 8 from the free throw line and grabbed eight rebounds for Houston (9-5, 1-0), which defeated a ranked team for the first time since beating Central Florida on Jan. 8, 2011.
Jherrod Stiggers added 17 points and Danrad Knowles had 13 points and nine rebounds for the Cougars, who shot 49 percent from the field.
Thomas drove to the basket and put up a jumper with 9 seconds left but was fouled by Tyler Olander. Thomas connected on both free throws to put Houston up by two points.
“You saw it just like I did out there, the man took a one-handed hook on the baseline,” Boatright said of the foul. “There was no way he was not going to air ball that. They bailed him out. I think they bailed him out. You can’t blame it on the refs. We shouldn’t have been in that position anyways.”
Napier drove coast-to-coast and Thomas blocked his layup and Tione Womack grabbed the rebound and was fouled. Womack hit two free throws to give Houston the four-point lead with 2 seconds left.
Trailing 71-68, Stiggers tied it with a 3-pointer with just over a minute remaining. Napier missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 38 seconds left.
“We got back and felt like we could have taken the lead and kept it,” Napier said. “We weren’t able to rebound and get the stops necessary at that time. It was kind of difficult. If we would have played the way we were supposed to play in the first half, we would have won by 15 points. We just played bad.”
Napier’s only points in the first half came on two free throws with 4 seconds left. He started the second half by scoring 14 of the Huskies’ first 21 points as part of a 21-3 run that tied the game at 49 with 12:55 left on a dunk by Niels Giffey.
“It’s tougher because of my first-half performance,” Napier said. “It starts with me, and if I am not doing what I am supposed to do, then everything else goes downhill real fast. I didn’t do what I needed to do that first half. I let it slip out of my hand.”
Connecticut took its first lead of the game on a 3 by Daniels with 3:40 remaining that made it 67-64.
“Once again we got down by a big margin,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “We have to play. We weren’t ready to play and that’s my fault. I’ll try to find some tough guys but what we’re showing now; we get down, and then that’s when we start playing. We play in spurts, and I’ve been telling y’all that this whole season. We can’t play in spurts, because we’re not good enough.”
The Cougars jumped to a 10-2 lead in the first 4 1/2 minutes on two 3s by LeRon Barnes and two jumpers by Thomas, prompting Ollie to call a timeout.
Houston upped its lead to 20-8 with 11:53 left in the first half on a layup by Stiggers, prompting another Connecticut timeout.
The Cougars pushed the lead to 45-24 on two free throws by Jaaron Simmons with 2:25 left and led 46-28 at halftime.
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