This year's UConn team just didn't have it.
There is no other way to put it. Ryan Boatright couldn't do it alone and the UConn Huskies fell short in the American Athletic Conference championship game last weekend. Although the Huskies' NCAA tournament hopes rimmed around and bounced out, I saw something in Hartford this weekend that, while not validated by a postseason berth, makes all the difference as a fan: we finally competed.
The 2014-15 UConn men's basketball season has been a bumpy road, to say the least. Walking down a cobblestone Pratt Street, under the official American championship arch and into the XL Center, you knew it wasn't going to be easy. Though I have written about the relative lack of competition in the American, winning four games in four days is a challenge no matter what.
If there was one aspect of this team that left me perplexed to the point of frustration, it was the lack of competitive fire. A lack of toughness that has become a staple of UConn basketball over the years. Whether it was due to a championship hangover, or too many new pieces to the puzzle, this team struggled all season to find its identity.
No, we are not going on another magical ride through the NCAA tournament but I will tell you one thing: These players found their toughness in Hartford this weekend. Plagued by youthful miscues, devastated by injury and largely undersized, they never once gave in. It may have taken an entire season, but they found what it means to play UConn Basketball.
Sure, Amida Brimah's backcourt violation in the final minute against Cincinnati evoked groans from the crowd, but even after the Bearcats overcame a five-point deficit in the final 1:25, we did not quit. Instead, guys stepped up and made winning plays when their number was called. Daniel Hamilton, mourning the death of his grandmother, knocked down a clutch deep three that reminded me of Taliek Brown's prayer from the 2002 Big East championship game.
Just when it seemed like the ship was finally sinking, Captain Boatright delivered the final dagger with a lightning quick crossover-to-3-pointer for the victory. Kemba Walker had his signature shot, Shabazz Napier followed suit, and now Boatright will join them in UConn highlight reels. Thank god for that shot, because I don't think we would have won in overtime.
Fast forward to Tulsa, a game that saw the Huskies outrebounded 40-28 and trailing for more than 32 minutes. Things were looking especially dim late in the second half, with Tulsa up 10 and only 6:35 to play. Instead of succumbing to the ball-hawking pressure, UConn came to life.
"It was ugly for a second, I'm not going to lie," Boatright said. "When we got in that under-4 minute timeout, we all looked each other in the eye and said we're going to figure it out. We're going to dig ourselves out of this hole and win the game."
And win they did. UConn used a 14-1 run in the closing 3:30 to advance to the American championship game. We didn't hit many shots, but we hit the shots we had to. That shows mental toughness but most importantly, it shows growth. However painful, sometimes doing it the right way is more important than the end result.
SMU was always going to be our destiny in this tournament, it was inevitable from the onset. The Mustangs, having won nine of their previous 10 games, played with a chip on their shoulder from the tip. You could tell this team still felt the pain from last year's tournament snub and was determined to officially seal their fate before the 6:00pm Selection Show.
SMU's energy killed us on the offensive glass, taking advantage of both Kentan Facey's absence (concussion) and early foul trouble from UConn's front line. Our lack of depth was exposed with SMU's bench outscoring our depleted Huskies 29-8. Boatright, clearly feeling the effects of two hard falls and the fatigue of his fourth game in four days, was just not himself. You could feel the team rally around him, desperately trying to pull out a win for their captain. From Rodney Purvis' strong drives to the lane to Brimah's rim protection late in the second half, the supporting cast did what they could. That is what you have to love about these Huskies. We fight for our own. Unfortunately this season, it was just not enough.
This team didn't have it, but am I disappointed? No. We gave ourselves a chance to make the tournament. A team that could not close out Yale to start the season beat two tough opponents in hard-fought games. My only regret from the weekend was not giving Boatright an appropriate applause when he exited the championship game. On the heels of a ferocious comeback – and questionable foul call – I don't think it registered this was Boatright's last game in Hartford. Out of all the UConn greats, I have never seen more tenacity packed into such a small frame. Thank you, Ryan, for four great years. Best of luck in the future.
The first-round NIT loss to Arizona State is a great foreshadowing of what needs to happen this offseason. Minus Boatright, this year's supporting cast will be thrust into the limelight. Our success will depend on the work that is put in from now until next October. There is no reason Amida Brimah should not be a lottery pick at some point. Purvis should add an explosive scoring punch every game, and Phil Nolan should strive to be the next Hilton Armstrong. This is why we built the new state-of-the-art basketball facility equipped with full weight room and practice courts. The clock to the 2016 NCAA tournament begins ticking now...
I will leave you with one final thought. Do you remember what happened the year following our last NIT first-round loss?