Hartford-- Kemba Walker had the iconic step back against Pittsburgh. Shabazz Napier hit that elbow jumper against Florida. Tonight, Ryan Boatright drilled a three to keep UConn's run to the American Athletic Conference championship alive. It has been a requirement for all Husky point guards to hit an obscenely clutch shot before leaving. Those are just the rules.
"Once I missed that free throw, I thought this is deja vu, this is Texas all over again," Boatright said. "I told KO, I'm not going out like this." At times this season, Boatright, who finished with a game high 18 points, has undergone massive scrutiny. This team did not live up to expectations. He missed huge free throws in close games. Tonight, he was able to deliver.
In a hard-fought defensive slugfest, the Huskies were able to steal the victory. The game was tied nine times, with four lead changes. These two squads, dating back to their days in the Big East, have hooked up for some grueling games. This was no exception. "It was a gutty win. Everybody knew it would come down to possessions," coach Kevin Ollie said. "We took the game at the end."
Up until Boat's bucket, this game was about defense. The Huskies held Cincinnati to 44% from the field. Troy Caupain was their leading scorer, with just 12 points. The Bearcats really fought hard tonight on the glass. They out rebounded UConn 37-27, including 10 offensive rebounds. They capitalized with 19 second chance points. Their bigs put up 32 points in the paint. Make no mistake about it, Cincinnati played well enough to win.
The Huskies struggled shooting as well, hitting just 38% from the field. Cincinnati did a great job preventing dribble penetration and essentially walled off the paint. UConn finished with just 6 paint points. Amida Brimah and Phil Nolan each picked up 4 fouls, limiting their minutes. In desperation, Ollie turned to freshman Rakim Lubin for 13 minutes, and he stepped up. He had a key block late in the second half and his size bothered the Bearcats.
Tonight saw Rodney Purvis really step up. He finished with 17 points, 10 of which came in the 2nd half. His presence as a second scorer and creator on offense was key in the victory. "He's just playing with confidence. He's not looking over at me and that's a good thing," Ollie said. "He's just shooting the basketball...you see his enthusiasm."
The XL Center crowd, although small, was raucous by the time the game started. That type of energy, especially in the second half, clearly had an impact on the Huskies. "It was crazy. I just couldn't wait for one of my teammates to make the next shot, that's how loud it was in there. I wanted to jump in the crowd with them. It was exciting out there, but that's what you came to UConn for," Purvis said.
For all the little things that made this game a true treat, it starts and ends with Ryan Boatright. "It's unbelievable. I'm just blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to play for this team. To make a shot like that, we've had some great guards, Shabazz, Kemba. We put in that work to be in that situation to be able to make that shot," he said.
Tomorrow, they will face 2nd seed Tulsa. It will be their third game in as many nights. "That's why we got the hardest conditioning in America, you understand why we can play like this. Being here with this crowd and with our pre-season, I'm sure we're going to be alright. We're warriors."
It's March. UConn is still alive.