HARTFORD, Conn. – Ryan Boatright didn’t want to go out like this.
Not with a missed free throw leading the story. Not with another tough loss to a good team, the likes of which they have had plenty of this season. Not with a loss in front of the home crowd. Not with a loss that would almost certainly send them to the NIT.
Not when he’s worked all his life to take a shot like that, even if the shot alone seemed to take a long time.
“I almost went crazy watching it, it seemed like it just took so long to go in,” said forward Phillip Nolan.
It’s getting to the point where you expect a UConn guard to do something special in the month of March. The exploits of Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier are well-known by now. Boatright spent three years playing alongside the latter, and now it’s his turn. Like both, he has a national championship ring, but he wants to match his former teammate. He still wants to put that jersey on. He still wants to play in front of the home fans.
UConn was locked in a great battle with Cincinnati, one that was played within an 11-point window. It went back and forth, both on the scoreboard and with momentum. The Huskies looked like they might be the last team to have the momentum, going up by five and having that lead with 36 seconds left. Then after a three-pointer brought the Bearcats within two, Boatright had a chance to seal the game as he was fouled.
He missed the front end of a one-and-one. When Cincinnati raced down the floor and got a stickback to tie it with 12.5 seconds left, he had flashbacks.
“Once I missed it, man, they got that put back, it was like deja vu, this is Texas all over again,” said the senior guard.
How could he forget? On that November day, he missed the second free throw with a 54-52 lead – the exact same score at the time he missed the free throw on Friday night – and Texas called timeout, then got a game-winning three-pointer. It was a devastating loss in a game they were in control of, and on their home floor.
Admitting that the thought crossed his mind is a rare and refreshing bit of candidness from an athlete. Perhaps he would not have if not for what transpired seconds later. But you don’t often hear an athlete admit it. Boatright is a competitor and will go out as one.
“I wanted to put the ball in his hands because he deserved it,” said head coach Kevin Ollier. “He’s a senior and he came through for us.”
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and that includes a shot like this. We only see the end result on TV, or perhaps in person, but we don’t see what made it possible. We didn’t see how Boatright has spent years working on the crossover dribble he used to get separation. We didn’t see how Boatright learned to pick up that a big man (Cincinnati’s Octavius Ellis) was on him, or how to watch his feet to pick up what he would do. We didn’t see how Boatright spent years studying the games of the likes of Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson, the latter a good analog since Iverson was a small guard like Boatright. We didn’t see all the shots he put up to refine his stroke and develop the range on his jumper.
Boatright has been in games like this his whole career. His team has won some and lost some. Overwhelmingly, they’ve won games. This year, it’s been a little tougher, especially when it’s close. They had been 1-6 in games decided by four points or less, including 0-4 in such games in conference play. Getting the second win in that category ends up coming at a pretty good time.
UConn came into this weekend almost certainly needing to win the tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. That’s the position they put themselves in. Fortunately, they’re playing in their second home arena, which means it’s familiar and they have a home crowd behind them. They are 8-1 at the XL Center this season, better than their 4-3 mark at Gampel Pavilion on campus.
Earlier in the day, a UConn assistant said in a conversation that they’ve won five games in five days before, so four in four can’t be that hard. That was the beginning of the magic carpet ride Walker took them on, and dramatic game-winning shots were part of it. Last year, Napier took them on a similar ride through the NCAA Tournament. Now Boatright is trying to carve out his place in that category.
He’s halfway there.
Ryan Boatright is not ready to go out with anything less.