By Andrew Kahn
Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels jump off the stat sheets from Connecticut’s wins at Madison Square Garden this past weekend. The play of junior guard Ryan Boatright was just as important. On Friday, after Iowa State had cut a 17-point deficit to four with two minutes left, Boatright made what his coach called the play of the game. Driving right off a ball screen, he somehow spotted Niels Giffey in the left corner and contorted his body to snap a crisp pass that led to a back-breaking three.
Boatright hit some big shots of his own against Michigan State in Sunday’s regional final, such as his three to push the lead to 10 in the second half, but it was his defense that was critical. Michigan State’s senior point guard Keith Appling only scored two points and had twice as many turnovers (four) as assists. When the Spartans turned to Travis Trice for an offensive boost, Boatright smothered him. Trice was 0 for 4 from the field and had to be taken out of the game because Boatright made it difficult for him to get the ball up the court.
“[My coaches] tell me all the time that I’m the defensive stopper for the point guards,” said Boatright, who has six steals in the past two games. “I take pride in my defense, picking them up 94 feet, the entire length of the floor. Even if I can’t pick a steal, just turning them and turning them and getting them uncomfortable so they can’t run the offense so smoothly. So even though my shots weren’t falling today, I was going to do something to impact the game and today it was the defense.”
Boatright has an inconsistent release on his shot—he’s shooting 38 percent this season—and, earlier this season, had a tendency to showcase his exceptional handle at the expense of ball movement, but he’s playing his best basketball in the Tournament. He scored 16 on 4 of 10 shooting against Iowa State and scored 11 against the Spartans. Despite his size—he’s generously listed at 6-feet, an inch shorter than his backcourt mate Napier—he averages 3.4 rebounds on the year.
“Ryan is growing up,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, a former point guard who is very passionate about what he expects from that position. “Ryan is allowing us to coach him now. He’s opening up and trusting us more. He’s meant a lot to us, not only in the games you see [on TV] but what he’s done in practice, being more vocal, being a leader.” Ollie praised Boatright’s unselfishness, and it has been clear during this Tournament run that he’s been looking to distribute to the hot hand.
UConn will face No. 1 overall seed Florida in the Final Four on Saturday. The Huskies beat the Gators at home on Dec. 2 on a Napier buzzer-beater. Boatright had nine points and four assists in that game, but it was UConn’s work on the other end of the floor that stood out. “I just remember a lot of scrambling on defense,” he said after beating Michigan State. “We were everywhere—helping each other, closing out right, and rebounding the basketball. When we got to go out there and play them [again], we’ve got to play great defense.”
Andrew Kahn is a contributor to CBS Local Sports who also writes for Newsday and The Wall Street Journal. He writes about college basketball and other sports at AndrewJKahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn
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