Survive ... and advance.
That's what March is all about .. and that's what UConn did tonight.
In a Topsy-turvy game that featured two teams uninterested in going home early, the Huskies were able to pull out an overtime win over St. Joes, 89 to 81.
The biggest play of the night came with about 40 seconds left in regulation. With UConn down three and facing elimination, Shabazz Napier drove to the basket and missed a layup. From out of nowhere came Amida Brimah, who grabbed an offensive rebound in the middle of about three Hawk defenders.
As the entirety of UConn Nation screamed "KICK IT OUT," Brimah instead decided to channel Kareem Abdul Jabar and went up with an UGLY little hook shot that went in ... just around the time the whistle was sounding.
AND ... ONE!
Brimah calmly stepped and hit the free throw, UConn played stellar defense, and the Huskies had forced overtime.
In the extra period, UConn opened up a quick four point lead and then buried the Hawks from the free throw line. Once St. Joe's heart and soul point forward Halil Kanacevic fouled out early in the overtime, it was pretty much countdown.
If you look at the box score of this game, it will tell you that, once again, Shabazz Napier was the star. After only recording 5 points in the first half, Napier filled his stat line once again, finishing with 24, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. Napier also hit one of the biggest shots in the overtime, a driving hook layup that garnered a foul and put the Huskies up 79-73, essentially forcing St. Joe's into foul mode.
However, stats sometimes don't tell the whole story. Napier's night was very erratic. He was bad in the first half, shooting horribly from the floor and doing little to actually put the Huskies in an offensive rhythm. If it wasn’t for some key three pointers from Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels, and Niels Giffey, the Huskies would have found themselves down a whole lot more than 5 points at the half.
In fact, Boatright was, in my mind, the star of the first half. Not only was he scoring, especially some big threes that kept UConn nipping at St. Joe's heels, but he also ran the team from the point as well as I've seen all year. He drove and kicked it to the corner. He passed inside, giving his low-post player a chance to do some damage. He seemed to play under control.
In a year where Boatright has seemed consistently out of sorts, this game seemed to have him focused.
Then, you had the play of Daniels. It took me a moment when I looked at his stats and saw he only had 18 points and four rebounds. Make no mistake, that's a really good game, but he seems to have just made a lot of big shots and grabbed a bunch of hard-fought rebounds. In a season where Daniels was (rightfully) criticized for doing disappearing act, he came to play in this game.
And then there was Brimah. Again, the stat line isn't crazy. He had 9 points and 6 rebounds. But ... seriously. He was a force inside. He was all over the offensive boards, was the only UConn player to intimidate a hard-nosed Hawks group that wanted to play inside-out, and just changed the tenor of the game. Of course he did some Brimah-esque things, like getting lost on defense under the basket when he was actually hanging back to make sure he didn't let his man get open right underneath the basket, and another time committing a foul where he basically tackled Ronald Roberts as he was falling backwards.
However, those were small things. Brimah saved UConn's bacon at the end of regulation and showed how absolutely indispensable he is for the Huskies.
Another player that deserves a shout-out is Lasan Kromah. The man played really good defense on Langston Galloway, especially in the second half. In fact, it was Kromah's defense that turned St. Joe's last possession in regulation into a shot-clock violation. He seemed to be all over the place and his constant pursuit definitely wore down a few St. Joe's players, especially since the team only goes 7 deep.
But it wouldn't be right not to acknowledge Napier. He didn't dominate this game the way he has many others, but he kept pushing the Huskies every time they seemed to be letting the game slip away. UConn found themselves in this weird cycle where they would fall behind by 6 or 7 points and then storm back and cut the lead to one. Many times, it was Shabazz doing just enough to spark the comeback. He didn't sustain it like he has so many times this year, but he kept doing it ... either hitting a three, making a layup, or finding an open teammate for a dunk or layup. It wasn't vintage Shabazz, and he certainly wasn't the biggest factor in the win tonight, but he definitely helped settle everything down.
And how about a shout out to Kevin Ollie in his first tournament game. I thought he did a great job at half time of getting UConn to buckle down on the inside defense (there were a lot less easy layups in the second half) and I give him credit for sticking with Brimah when he got his fourth foul midway through the second half. The inclination, I'm sure, was to pull him and maybe go with Phil Nolan or Tyler Olander, but he saw how important Brimah was to this team on this night and how much Nolan especially was being abused. Nice job all around getting the Huskies to put a somewhat disappointing first half (especially defensively) behind them and continuing to play hard, aggressive basketball in the second.
Look, there were things not to like about this game. For a while it seemed the Huskies were doing just enough to lose. Every time they caught up to St. Joe's there would be a stupid foul or bad defensive set that would allow the Hawks to stretch their lead again. For a while it also looked like UConn was going to once again fall to a less talented team because they just simply knew how to play basketball. In a lot of ways St. Joe's reminded me of SMU - smart offensive sets, good, tough defensive, and a patience that comes from good coaching. While the Huskies fell into their usual one-on-one, dribble, dribble dribble routine, St. Joe's was running plays, looking for open shots, and passing.
For a while, it looked likely that would rule the day.
But give UConn all the credit. They gritted this one out. They hit big shots. They out rebounded the Hawks 34-33. They scrambled and scrapped and played hard for 40 minutes, and then played hard in overtime.
This was a complete team effort. No one player carried the load. This was about the entire team stepping up and saying "we came here to play more than one game."
That they will ... on Saturday.
There will be plenty of time to talk about UConn vs. whomever (probably Villanova). For now, let's enjoy UConn's first tournament win since Kemba Walker was a Husky.
UConn did what you need to do in March. They survived.
Now the advance