Boatright sparks second half charge, leads UConn to opening night win
STORRS – Opening night started off with a bang for UConn senior Ryan Boatright.
First, his mother surprised him with an unexpected appearance prior to the Huskies’ contest against Bryant at Gampel Pavilion. Then, he received his 2013-14 championship ring during a pregame ceremony. And finally, he was called last during the starting lineup introductions – something always reserved for the best and most popular player of teams.
While that start was perfectly scripted for the UConn captain, it took awhile for his – and his team’s – night to pick up momentum on the court.
The 17th-ranked Huskies, showing the growing pains of a new season and new rotations, had an ugly first half, shooting 34.2 percent and only 2-of-11 from three in trailing by six. That deficit even increased to nine early in the second.
Boatright, at that point, had enough. Showing the leadership UConn will need after the loss of Shabazz Napier, he went on a 7-0 run himself, which included a dunk in transition off a steal and a three-pointer.
The Huskies then rode his energy en route to a 66-53 victory, displaying the potential this group, led by Boatright, has. As witnessed Friday, it will take time develop.
“This is a young team and we are going to play some good teams,” Boatright said. “We just won a national championship so we’re going to get everyone’s best shot. We have to stay together and grind out those wins.”
Boatright had eight points and two turnovers at the half. By the final buzzer, he compiled 24 points, eight rebounds, five assists and four steals.
“I had some careless turnovers and I was getting beat,” he admitted. “I take pride in my defense and I was getting beat way too much off the dribble in the first half. Being a veteran and leader of the team, I know have to correct those things myself. If the team sees me with my head down and getting mad and stuff like that, they’re going to do it, too.”
UConn also received strong second halves from Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey. Brimah had 12 points, five rebounds and, most importantly, five blocks in smothering the Bulldogs at the rim. Facey, a sophomore in a starting role, did the dirty work in securing 11 rebounds, several of which came in heavy traffic.
It was far from a flawless win, but UConn coach Kevin Ollie was encouraged by the promise his squad showed over the final 20 minutes.
The Huskies withstood 19 points and six rebounds from Bryant’s Dyami Starks, not to mention an incredible 18-0 first half run by the Bulldogs.
“In the second half, we showed our resilience, we showed our toughness,” said Ollie, who picked up a technical foul for arguing a no-call against Boatright in the second half. “It’s going to be a process, and we’re going to keep falling in love in with it. I want to make sure our chemistry is strong, and that showed today, because we stayed with each other.
“We took on a great challenge today and we passed the first one.”
Boatright will play a vital role in the Huskies’ long-term chemistry. With Napier now in the NBA, he is now the face of the team. It’s a challenge the 6-foot guard from Aurora, Ill. relishes.
“I’ve never been one about myself,” said Boatright, who averaged 12.7 points and 3.3 assists in his first three seasons at UConn. “I am all about my team. I will take a national championship as a team over (individual accolades). I’ve put in a lot of work at this university and have had a lot of ups and downs here. I’ve earned my stripes.”
And, as important as his play, will be his role as leader.
“The team looks to me for everything,” Boatright said. “When we are down or up, they’re going to look at me. I know I have to be that leader and do the right things.”
“He didn’t have a particularly good first half tonight, but he didn’t point the finger at anybody,” added Ollie. “What’s he’s doing as a leader is self-correcting. He went into halftime and said, ‘I’ve got to get better on defense.’ Then he started picking it up, got some steals, started making some shots, got some rebounds. He’s being what a leader is supposed to be.”
Boatright’s final play of the night was symbolic of the ultimate team-first play. Up 12 with the game in hand, he dove on the floor for a steal, fed the ball to Sam Cassell Jr., who then threw a 30-foot alley-oop to Brimah for a dunk. The sellout crowd of 10,167 was just as excited for the steal as they were for the slam.
And the Huskies, Boatright's team, left the floor with an opening night win.