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Boatright's buzzer-beater keeps UConn's tournament hopes alive

POSTED March 14, 2015
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia

HARTFORD – It’s no understatement to say Ryan Boatright has carried the UConn men’s basketball team this season.

With that said, he’s been far from perfect.

He missed late free throws that contributed to losses to Texas and Yale. His last second shot down one against Memphis didn’t come close. On Friday, in the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament, he missed the front end of a one-and-one that opened the door for Cincinnati to tie the game with 13.5 seconds left.

But the mark of a great player is bouncing back from failure and aggressively attacking that situation when it comes up again.

Boatright didn’t let his next chance slip away.

Off a timeout, he drove the length of the floor with Kevin Johnson hounding him. Last week in defeat to Memphis, Boatright, in the same situation, drove to the hoop and drew contact, but didn’t get a call. It led to a wild, off-balance shot that had no chance.

On this occasion, Boatright went in a different direction, hitting Octavius Ellis, who switched onto him, with a fierce right-to-left crossover, opening just enough space to get a good look as the final seconds ticked away. This time, his shot - a three - was on the money.

UConn 57, Cincinnati 54. On to the semifinals.

“Yeah, I knew it was going in,” Boatright calmly said 30 minutes after the game at his locker.

The scene following his shot at the XL Center was hardly calm. The small, but boisterous 9,514 on hand, a factor all night in the Huskies’ favor, exploded into a championship-like celebration, with the "Ryan Boatright!" chant lasting well after the final buzzer. UConn (19-13), needing to win this tournament as its only hope for an NCAA Tournament bid, will play Tulsa today at 5 p.m.

Thanks to Boatright.

“Once we got to the huddle, coach (Kevin Ollie) kept us composed and told me he’s going to give me the ball,” said Boatright, who finished with a game-high 18 points.  “I told myself that I’m not going out like that. We’re going to take this last shot, and I’m going to make it.”

What helped the play work was Daniel Hamilton undercutting Johnson with a screen, not allowing the Bearcats to execute a double team and creating a switch, with the 6-foot-10 Ellis taking Boatright. He had no shot of sticking on the slick UConn guard.

“Coach drew up a great play for the slip, so they couldn’t double me,” explained Boatright. “Once I came off, he was nervous of me beating him baseline, so I gave him one good crossover to give myself a good look to knock it down.”

Ollie had an easy decision of who to pick for the last shot.

“That last play by Ryan was a great crossover, just a great individual move,” UConn’s coach said. “I wanted to put the ball in his hands because he deserved it. He’s a senior and he came through for us. I’m very proud of him, but I’m very proud of our team.”

As always, Ollie’s team found itself in a low-scoring slugfest with Cincinnati. Instead of challenging the Bearcats’ tough frontline, the Huskies focused on shooting from the outside, with 30 of their 55 shots (11 makes) coming from three.

Their strategy appeared to pay off as they built a late five-point lead, highlighted a 30-foot three off the glass by Hamilton at the shot clock buzzer and a lay-up in transition by Rodney Purvis (17 points), sparked by a block from Amida Brimah.

Shaq Thompson’s tip-in, however, with 13.5 seconds remaining tied the game and stunned the very-pro UConn crowd. For the Huskies to complete a four-wins-in-four-days tourney run, you knew something wild would have to occur along the way.

Boatright’s shot may just be that launching pad.

“It was just a gutty win, and everybody knew it was going to come down to (late) possessions,” Ollie said. “What we did was take care of the basketball. I thought our guards played excellent in this magnitude type of game with that matchup, and for those guys to get three turnovers and 12 assists, I thought they did a great job.”

The turnaround for the Huskies will be less than 24 hours against a Tulsa team they destroyed, 70-45, in Hartford on Feb. 12. One month prior, UConn lost the battle between these teams in Oklahoma by eight.

“It’s a clean slate,” Purvis said. “It’s a new game, a different situation. Now, it’s win or go home, and a lot more on the line. We’re just going to play possession by possession, and approach each one likes it’s our last and see who comes out on top.”

That the Huskies are still standing with a chance for an NCAA Tournament berth is a testament to Boatright’s leadership. Throughout this rocky season, they could’ve mailed it in and looked forward to next year. Boatright, though, has no years left at UConn. And, as he has said on numerous occasions, he did not come back to school to go to the NIT.

His play, and his attitude, all came together on the final shot. One that will be played over and over on the highlight reels along with memorable baskets from other great UConn guards.

“It’s unbelievable, man. I'm just blessed and fortunate to be in this situation and have the opportunity to play with this team and play for this great program,” Boatright said. “The great guards that we’ve had, Shabazz (Napier), Kemba (Walker), we put in the work to be in that situation and be able to make that shot.”

And because of it, the Huskies’ tournament hopes live another day.

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