HARTFORD – With 3:40 left to play, UConn trailed Tulsa 40-33.
The offense was stuck in the mud. Nothing was falling, good looks were at a premium.
The season, hinging on a championship in this American Athletic Conference tournament, hung in the balance.
It was time for the Huskies to tap into something. To show a resiliency that has defined the program for a generation. It was time for a response.
From there, the Huskies closed the game on a 14-2 run to steal the game away from the Golden Hurricane. A layup from Rodney Purvis, three pointers from Daniel Hamilton and Ryan Boatright and a long two from Purvis gave UConn a 43-42 lead. Boatright iced the game with four straight makes from the line over the final 11 seconds. The victory sends UConn into the championship game tomorrow afternoon where they will face top seeded SMU.
This was peak UConn in March Madness. This team has no quit. "I'm kind of at a loss for words," coach Kevin Ollie said. "but the one word that comes to mind is heart. These guys played with a lot of heart. We called a timeout with 3:40 to go and everybody looked at each other and said we still believe and we've got a will to win and they just dug in... That's just a UConn tough victory."
It cannot be overstated how poor UConn looked on offense for the first 36 minutes of this game. They finished 17-47 from the field, 36 percent. Tulsa's defense was stifling any and all penetration from UConn, forcing them to settle for late in the shot clock jumpers. "We missed a lot of shots today, but our defense is what kept us in there, especially at the end. We got kill after kill after kill, and that's what we're about," Ollie said.
Thankfully, Ryan Boatright was feeling it from outside. He went 5-9 from three-point range to add to his game-high 21 points. This was yet another example of the mantra "Boat vs. the World." One night after his buzzer beater, he reminded UConn Nation why he came back for his senior season. "That's been my area where I have to score. Teams are so scared of me getting in the paint and causing havoc, scoring and creating plays for each other that I knew that’s where I was going to get my shots," Boatright explained.
The reason UConn was able to steal this game late was because their defense kept them in it throughout the afternoon. Amida Brimah, the conference Defensive Player of the Year, finished with 5 blocks. Phil Nolan had a block and Rakim Lubin added some toughness inside. The Huskies limited Tulsa to just 29.6 percent shooting from the field. That type of effort, especially in a game where shots weren't falling, was massive. "(We were) just playing hard, playing aggressive. We went back to fundamentals," Ollie said. "Amida has been great. Phil has been great for us. It’s not all our perimeter guys, and I know they get a lot of the credit, but Amida is blocking shots, Phil is moving his feet, and Rakim is coming in and playing a hell of a defensive effort when he gets his minutes…Our bigs are showing up. It don’t show in the stat sheets, but they do a lot of our dirty work for us."
Tomorrow afternoon, UConn will face SMU with a chance to clinch a bid to the NCAA Tournament. With less than five minutes to play, it seemed unlikely that would be a possibility. Yet, here we are. Just two weeks ago, the Huskies beat the Mustangs 81-73 here in Hartford. Tomorrow, they have the opportunity to do it again. "It’s going to be a different game … We’ll take a rest Monday but it’s no time to rest now, we're going to go back, we're going to break down SMU," Ollie said. "They're the best team in the conference, hands down. There’s no better way than go through the best and that’s what were going to have to go through to win a championship. It’s going to be a great game, atmosphere, and I can say I would not want it anywhere else but the XL Center…Our crowd is going to stand up together with us and give us the victory we need."
It’s all on the line. Win and UConn clinches an automatic bid to the big dance. Lose and NIT here we come.
Tip off is at 3:15.
What’s better than this?