BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Ticker) -- The longest winning streak in the nation was no match for the defending national champion.
Fifth-seeded Connecticut began defense of its crown by stopping No. 12 Utah State's 19-game winning streak with a 75-67 victory in a first-round game in the South Region, but the win might have been costly.
Huskies point guard Khalid El-Amin sprained his right ankle with just over four minutes remaining. El-Amin, who had 14 points, left the game twice and packed the ankle in ice.
His status for Sunday's game against fourth-seeded Tennessee is unknown, although he said he felt something pop, according to Huskies coach Jim Calhoun. Calhoun reported it to be a sprain on the outside of his ankle.
"We will meet tonight with the Tennessee game plan," Calhoun said. "It will be predicated on Khalid. If the doctor says something more serious happened, then we will have to change the plan.
"It (the ankle) is sore right now. We really don't know. We're working with him. He has it iced." Connecticut's win means that the 11-year-old streak of at least one 12th seed winning in the first round is over. DePaul started the run by beating Memphis in 1989.
Albert Mouring added 14 points for Connecticut (25-9), which got 13 from Kevin Freeman and 10 from Tony Robertson while shooting 48 percent (28-of-58). Robertson might be on the spot against Tennessee if El-Amin cannot play.
"Late last night was the first time we as a staff discussed either Lousiana-Lafayette or Tennessee," Calhoun said. "They're one of the more athletic and talented teams we'll play all year, whether we're healthy or not. It's the second round of the NCAA Tournament, so we're excited." Troy Rolle scored 18 points and Shawn Daniels 17 for the Aggies (28-6), who had not lost since an 82-73 decision to Brigham Young on January 8. Utah State, the Big West Conference champion, joined Cincinnati and Pennsylvania as the only three teams to go through their respective conference seasons without a loss.
The Huskies were challenged throughout the game but never trailed. Ajou Deng hit a pair of free throws 50 seconds into the game to give them the lead for good and Connecticut jumped to a 10-4 advantage.
Daniels made a basket before the Huskies embarked on a 21-10 run to open a 31-16 advantage. Freeman's dunk with 5:58 left in the half capped the spurt.
"I think it helps being here before," Freeman said. "I see the confidence in guys' eyes. We know we just have to execute and play defense. You can't get nervous down the stretch. You just have to know you've been there before and execute to win the game." Utah State then embarked on a 9-0 run that Daniels finished with a free throw at the 3:31 mark. Connecticut pushed back the lead to 39-29 by intermission but was just setting the tone for the second half.
"Our key focus was to try to go inside and exploit that," Freeman explained. "Eventually they wore down inside. They physically broke down a little bit in the second half." As the frontline of Daniels, Rolle and center Dimitri Jorssen tired, the backcourt of Bernard Rock and Tony Brown provided no help as each finished 1-of-7 from the floor.
"It wasn't their full-court press, it was their offense," Rock said. "We see it in practice all the time. They were just a lot quicker than we expected them to be." Size mattered to Daniels and Aggies coach Stew Morrill.
"We knew about their height and tried to bang with them," Daniels said. "We just ran out of energy in the second half." "We just got worn down physically with their size," Morrill said. "We played extremely hard the entire basketball game. Our guys came in thinking they could beat Connecticut. If we could have cut it down and then get ahead it might have been a different game. We just couldn't do it." Rolle gave his team hope by knocking down a 25-foot 3-pointer 19 seconds into the second half to slice the deficit to seven and Brown converted from the same distance 34 seconds later as the Huskies began to sweat. When Daniels got the Aggies within 39-37 with a layup at the 17:37 mark, it appeared the tide had turned all the way in favor of Utah State.
Freeman stemmed the rush with a four-footer but Daniels responded with a short bucket. Then El-Amin hit a 3-pointer. and Edmund Saunders had a basket as the Huskies got some breathing room and a 47-39 lead with 15:08 left.
"Khalid makes the biggest difference on their team," Rock said. "If he has a great night, they'll follow his lead. ... Going against Tennessee and (Tony) Harris, if they don't have Khalid, then I think they're going to have a little bit of trouble." The Aggies clawed back within four but then Connecticut pushed it back to nine as Saunders, who had nine points and eight rebounds, made a pair from the line and Robertson made a layup with just under 13 minutes left. The lead was no less than five and ballooned as high as 13 thereafter.
"What helps us is when the guards penetrate," said Connecticut center Jake Voskuhl, who had eight points. "It really opens things up for us and we really had it clicking." .