Men's Basketball: Close games an advantage for tough UConn team
MEMPHIS - Shabazz Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, stood at the foul line with 12 seconds to play, his team ahead by one against Cincinnati, the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
A 90.1 percent free-throw shooter entering Friday's Semifinals, Napier uncharacteristically missed his second shot from the line, setting the stage for Sean Kilpatrick, who felt slighted after missing out on Player of the Year, to have his rebuttal.
Kilpatrick drove to the lane, opting for the tie instead of the win. He beat Napier, but found his path blocked by DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah. Cincinnati's leading scorer, however, was able to get the ball to the hoop, taking the breath out of every UConn fan from Memphis to Storrs.
"I thought it was going to go down," Napier said after Kilpatrick's shot failed to go in at the buzzer, sending UConn to Saturday's championship game, "but he definitely put too much spin on it and it went out the other way."
Once again, the Huskies, far from the most talented team, far from the flashiest team, found a way to win as a team.
"I like my guys," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said, "and I wouldn't trade them for the world."
Ollie's guys are a good group of guys to have entering March. They entered playing some of their worst basketball of the season, but the Huskies have turned it up when it matters, routing Memphis in front of the Tigers' favorable crowd Thursday night before shooting 43.9 percent against the conference's best defense on Friday.
While Thursday's game built momentum into Friday, it was Friday that showed why, depending on how the cards fall, UConn can be a dangerous team in Saturday's final and through the NCAA Tournament.
At the beginning of the season, every game was a grind, with the occasional exception when the Huskies played a Detroit or Boston University. Maryland, Florida, Indiana, Boston College, every one of those games came down to one possession. Every time, UConn came out on top.
We have seen it throughout the conference tournaments: no lead is safe, unless you are Louisville or Florida. Nebraska was up 16 on Ohio State Friday in the Big Ten Tournament and lost. Duke had Clemson by the throat in the ACC Tournament before the Tigers started clawing back. It is the team that is able to sustain the fight for 40 minutes, the team that is able to throw two punches for every one that it takes, that will come out on top.
More often than not this season, when it has come down to situations like that, UConn has proven that it can come out on top.
"We have been through it all season, and we always have fight and we never give up," junior forward DeAndre Daniels said. "Everybody has heart on this team, and when it comes down to the end, I put the bet on our team."
Few people will Saturday, when the Huskies take on a Louisville team that has pounded its opponents of late, including a 33-point victory against UConn one week ago. The Cardinals have been playing the best basketball in the nation of late, but the Huskies know that the best team is not always the one that wins. When this year's seniors were freshmen, they beat Louisville in the Big East Championship Game as the No. 9 seed after losing twice to the Cardinals in the regular season.
"We going to come out and play," Ollie said. "This is the postseason and (Saturday's loss) is behind us. I think we're a better team and of course Louisville is a better team, and we're going to face out in the ring and see who comes out."
Those experiences of 2011, of last year's tournament-less campaign, of the hard-fought games last November and December, they have UConn ready for anything anyone throws at them.
"We got to go out like this in every postseason game," junior guard Ryan Boatright said. "There aren't going to be too many blowouts in the postseason. You've got to know how to win these types of games, and I think that the way the regular season went...I think it really helped us."
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