CINCINNATI — This was a UConn team held together by duct tape, bandages and lots and lots of heart. If any UConn fan wants to stop here, wants to chalk up this game without Shabazz Napier as proof positive that these Huskies always play with determination and perspiration, well, you can stop reading after the next sentence.
AMV: Another moral victory.
Kevin Ollie certainly wanted to talk about his team's heart after the scoreboard read Cincinnati 61, UConn 56. Ollie said he didn't want to talk about Napier. He wanted to talk about his team's resilience and its fight. He especially wanted to talk about an inspired afternoon by freshman Phillip Nolan, an afternoon further complicated by Niels Giffey's dislocation fracture of his right index finger.
But, sometimes, sometimes you've got to talk about your team's finish, too.
And that finish was not good Saturday at Fifth Third Arena.
Before we dig in here, let me say this: Ollie should be the Big East Coach of the Year. He has done a terrific job. A team that could have played like it had nothing to play for has played like it has everything to play for — and that is demonstrated in a 19-9 record that most knowledgeable folks would have predicted would be 16-12 or 15-13 right now.
Ollie started the season with a one-year contract and he will leave it with virtually everyone in Connecticut agreeing that he is the long-term solution. His Huskies, inspired, perspired, always took the steps. They never took the escalator. And if you have read this column this season, you might be under the impression that the Huskies are, oh, 25-3. Game after game, the Huskies have been good, better and best in this space.
Not down the stretch of this one. Without Mr. Clutch, they double-clutched.
In the final 20 seconds, Phillip Nolan missed a big free throw, but much more important, R.J. Evans had an inbounds pass picked off and Ryan Boatright was called for a backcourt violation.
As much as Kevin likes to control the happy, inspired message, those are the facts. And here's another. Cincinnati has been playing lousy. The Bearcats had lost five of six games. And with an NCAA tournament bid on the line, with everything to play for Saturday, they played awful for a good chunk of this one, too. This win was available for the taking. And as great as the Georgetown game was, you've got to admit the Huskies lost a seven-point lead in the final two minutes of double overtime.
"We got kind of the bad stick at the end," Napier said. "A lot of plays we should have had, a lot of calls we should have got. But we played hard."
If you were wondering what the Huskies might look like next season if Napier chooses to enter the NBA draft, you got a glimpse. It wasn't always pretty. They were prone to errors when pressured. Beyond missing their best player and leading scorer, the Huskies also were missing their cerebrum and as vital a player in the closing moments as there has been in the nation this season.
Again, if you want to stop reading here, chalk it up to: AMVWSAQO: A moral victory without Shabazz and questionable officiating. If you are a UConn fan, you hated that Ryan Boatright didn't get a foul and a goaltending call in his favor in the second half. If you are a UConn fan, you hated that DeAndre Daniels got called for a foul on a blocked shot.
Yet, all the heart, all the resolve, all the whistles don't explain the way the Huskies gave it away at the end.
Napier said he woke up Saturday morning and felt that it wasn't possible that he could play. He did treatment on his injured right foot, the same foot that needed to be surgically repaired last summer. As he emerged for the national anthem, still wearing a protective boot, it was clear that he would miss his first college game. It hurt so much to watch that he said he was thinking about getting dressed at halftime. He was kidding. We think.
Ollie called it a "game-time decision," and R.J. Evans, who started in Napier's place, said the players didn't know that Napier wouldn't play for sure until shortly before the start.
Napier struggled with a shoulder injury earlier in the season and UConn lost to Pittsburgh and Louisville. After he landed awkwardly on a drive in the Georgetown loss, he battled his way to the end. It's no surprise that both two-game losing streaks are tied to him being hurt. Boatright can make some terrific things happen, but he's no Napier in the clutch and he's not his match as a floor general.
With a chance to tie the game at 57 with 20 seconds left, Nolan missed a free throw. Ollie didn't miss the opportunity to go over to Nolan at the ensuing timeout and offer words of encouragement. Other coaches might not be so human.
"He's not the last guy who'll make and miss a free throw," Ollie said. "I wanted him to keep his head up because I knew we'd still be in the game."
Sure enough, Titus Rubles turned over the ball on the inbounds pass. Down one, UConn had a glorious chance to win. Evans had his inbounds pass tipped and subsequently picked off by Sean Kilpatrick. That play was the killer.
"We ran the same play we always ran," Evans said. "Rubles tipped it on the way up. I didn't think he'd jump that high. That one is on me."
Kilpatrick made his free throws. Up three, coach Mick Cronin said he never intended to allow UConn to get off a three-point shot. The plan, with a 2-2-1 press, was to corral Boatright, allow the clock to get under 10 seconds and foul.
Those plans, of course, can blow up. But it never got that far. With a double-team closing, Cashmere Wright harried Boatright into a backcourt violation with five seconds left. Game. Set. Match.
"Cashmere definitely touched it," Boatright said. "But I shouldn't have been in that situation in the first place. I should have made a better play or we should have run a better play."
We're still getting a feel for Ollie in defeat and, in his defense, he's a rookie head coach. His inspirational sayings make for good copy. His support of his players is admirable. Yet he also seems at times eager to control the message with those general Ollie-isms. And sometimes he can try to make you feel a little stupid in asking a direct question.
When Omar Calhoun, who has been playing with a sprained wrist that he said felt worst Friday, shoots 1 of 7, a question about his taking off the wrist brace in the middle of the game probably deserved a better answer than "Superstition, I don't know." After all, without Napier, Calhoun's production is paramount.
After initially saying he didn't want to talk about Napier, obviously the major story line, Ollie eventually said, "You can't fill in the slack for Shabazz. Shabazz is one of the best players in the Big East. We just played with heart."
That they did.
They just didn't play well down the stretch.