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.
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?
Some pictures from the weekend: