AAC Tournament Recap: Thank you Ryan Boatright

 (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

This team just didn’t have it.

There is no other way to put it. Ryan Boatright is not Kemba Walker, Ryan Boatright is not Shabazz Napier and the UConn Huskies fell short in the American Athletic Conference Tournament Championship game yesterday. Although our 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 AAC Tournament 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 AAC, winning 4 games in 4 days is a challenge regardless of conference or level.

If there was one aspect of this team that left me perplexed to the point of frustration, it was the lack of competition. A lack of toughness that has become a staple of UConn basketball over the years. Call it a championship hangover, call it too many new pieces to the puzzle, this team struggled all season to find their identity.

No, we are not going on another magical ride through the NCAA Tournament but I will tell you one thing. We found our toughness in Hartford this weekend. Plagued by youthful miscues, devastated by injury and largely undersized but never once did we give in. It may have taken an entire season, but we found our identity. We found what it means to play UConn basketball.

Sure, Brimah’s backcourt violation in the closing 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 passing of his grandmother, knocked down a clutch deep three that couldn’t help but remind me of this Taliek Brown prayer from the 2002 Big East Championship game (40 second mark).

Judging from the clear momentum swing, I don’t think we beat Cincinnati in OT. That’s when Captain Boatright delivered the final dagger with a lightning quick crossover-to-three-pointer for the victory. Kemba had his signature shot, Shabazz followed suit, and now Boatright will join them in UConn highlight reels.

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. Said Boatright:

“It was ugly for a second, I’m not going to lie. 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 the game they did. UConn used a 14-1 run in the closing 3:30 to advance to the championship game. We didn’t hit many shots, but we hit the shots we had to. Earlier in the season (cough Yale, cough Texas) we found a way to lose. Against Tulsa, we found a way to win. That shows mental toughness but most importantly, that shows growth. However painful, sometimes doing it the right way is more important than the end result.

The Championship

SMU was always going to be our destiny in this tournament, it was inevitable from the onset. The Mustangs, entering having won 9 of their last 10, 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 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, was just not himself. You could feel the team rally around him, desperately trying to pull out a win for their Captain. From Rodney’s 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 put ourselves in a position to make the NCAA tournament and that is all a fan can ask for. A team that could not close out Yale to start the season beat three tough opponents in a do-or-die environment. My only regret from the weekend was not giving Ryan 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. Luckily, we are fortunate enough to have one last opportunity to thank Ryan for his contribution to the program this Wednesday at Gampel Pavilion. Out of all the UConn greats, I have never seen more tenacity packed into such a small frame. Thank you Ryan for a great four years and best of luck in the future.

We now turn our focus onto the NIT. Though it’s not the NCAA Tournament, we are still playing basketball in March when the majority of teams are at home. This team has finally found its identity. Carrying that over for a few more weeks against tough competition will be huge for this young team moving into the offseason.

I will leave with one final question.

Do you remember what happened the year following our last NIT berth?

AP

AP

Just saying. 


Some pictures from the weekend:

UConn-USF

UConn-USF

UConn-Cincinnati

UConn-Cincinnati

UConn-Tulsa

UConn-Tulsa

UConn-SMU

UConn-SMU

Shoutout to this die hard UConn fan who made the trek from California

Shoutout to this die hard UConn fan who made the trek from California!

UConn – Texas: Anatomy of a Buzzer Beater

The Situation: UConn 54 – Texas 52, 4.4 seconds left.

The Players: Connor Lammert (3 PTS, 1-2 3PT) inbounding for Texas guarded by Cassell Jr. Hamilton on Jonathan Holmes (10 PTS, 3-6 3PT). Boatright on Demarcus Holland (10 PTS, 0-0 3PT). Brimah on Myles Turner (7 PTS, 0-1 3PT). Samuel on Javan Felix (10 PTS, 2-8 3PT).

The Play: Texas stacks the left side of the court with point guard Javan Felix on the weak side guarded by Terrence Samuel. The #1 option on the play, Myles Turner, slips the screen (see below) for Jonathan Holmes and runs to the rim. With the long arms of Brimah taking away this option, Texas looks to option #2- Holmes. Holland sets a backscreen on Daniel Hamilton who gets caught behind Boatright leaving Holmes wide open in the corner. Brimah, honoring the freshman Turner, cannot get out in time and Holmes knocks down the three for the win. See below:

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* A screen slip is when a player gives the illusion of setting a screen, only to slip the screen just before contact. This tactic is used to catch defensive players who cheat early on a screen. If you need examples watch the Russel Westbrook – Kevin Durant combo in OKC.

The Aftermath: Miscommunication or broken ankle?

Daniel Hamilton on the last play: “We switched everything up in the huddle. I guess the guy behind me (presumably Boatright) didn’t know he was setting a back screen so my guy ended up getting the open shot.”     

Ryan Boatright: “When I realized my man was setting the screen, when I planted to go back the other way, it just turned and it gave out.”

Hamilton’s comments lead one to believe Coach Ollie instructed players to switch on screens in the huddle prior to the last shot. Hamilton’s actions support this theory as he allows himself to be screened, a direct contradiction to his fiesty defensive play all game. According to Boatright his ankle turned as he was planting to switch onto Holmes in the corner, the same ankle he had twisted earlier in the game.

The Verdict: Texas sunk Captain Boatright. I guess this is karma for all the ankles Boatright has broken in the past…

Thank you

“Two Final Fours, Champions in Maui, Winning the Big East Tournament and a National Championship: Few people witness in a lifetime what we were fortunate enough to experience in two years. Thank you UCONN Basketball for four of the most memorable years of my life.”

     This was my salute to UCONN basketball after working my last game senior year of college. It all went by in a blur yet I can still remember specific plays like they happened yesterday: Jeff Adrien’s dunk over two taller Michigan State defenders in the 2008 Final Four, Jeremy Lamb’s high flying dunk vs Columbia and of course Kemba Walker’s step back sinking Gary McGhee and Pitt. Although we still have the postseason tournaments to go, tonight brings the ceremonious culmination for the remaining 2010 recruiting class of Niels Giffey, Shabazz Napier and Tyler Olander. For such an unheralded recruiting class they have certainly given fans some of the most memorable moments in UCONN history. Shabazz, up for every major award this season, deserves all the accolades he receives however it is important not to overlook the contributions of Tyler and Niels, especially during the 2011 National Championship season.

     Few remember the 14 points Giffey put up in the Maui Championship game against Kentucky to complement Kemba’s offensive attack, some probably had never heard of him until that game. Even less will remember Olander’s contribution in the 2011 Big East semifinals vs Syracuse. With Okwandu and Oriakhi in foul trouble, Olander came off the bench to provide 7 points/6 rebounds against imposing Cuse’ big man Rick Jackson. Tyler’s breakthrough performance came when UCONN needed it most and dramatically changed the course of the game for the Huskies. Add in Shabazz’ clutch free throws in the waning seconds against Kentucky in the Final Four and you have three clutch performances that embody what it means to play basketball at UCONN. Grit, perseverance, toughness and commitment. Amidst all the transfers, the uncertainties, the negative attention, the loss of a postseason- they never left. In a college basketball landscape that glorifies the one-and-done, this is what it means to be a team, to be a family. Anyone- fan, coach, player, staff- who was a part of the 2011 National Championship season knows this is the most important ingredient. To have not one but three leaders who understand this concept is a scary thought for opposing teams come tournament time.

     This night is especially gratifying for me as it marks the last Gampel home game for my childhood friend, Tyler. Growing up in Mansfield, we wandered UCONN’s campus as little kids among UCONN greats such as Rudy Gay, Emeka Okafor and RIP Hamilton. Exiting high school practices you could see Gampel looming in the distance however it felt light years away. When Tyler committed to UCONN I was excited, but didn’t grasp the importance of this connection. The first “aha” moment occurred in warm-ups of the first game in Maui. While serving drastically different capacities, we were both in Hawaii representing the program we had idolized as kids against the top teams in the country. Next came the Big East Tournament at MSG and National Championship in Houston. Old friends from DC to Texas to Florida came out to not only watch UCONN, but Tyler. It is one thing to share a National Championship with your college friends, however when you can share the experience with childhood friends and family- it makes it that much more special. Suddenly, Gampel didn’t seem so far away. Through the ups and downs, it has been a great run and I will never forget the memories. Thank you Tyler and best of luck to you, Niels and Shabazz in the future.