One frustrating, fruitless possession after another had left the UConn men's basketball team scoreless for nearly nine minutes. Their slim lead had evaporated, though slowly, and a restlessness had settled over the arena.
It was a stretch that, for many teams, would have been an obvious sign that it was not their night.
But these Huskies have proven time and again that they are impervious to such portends, and are made of tougher stuff — the stuff, Shabazz Napier says, to make "a crazy run" in the NCAA Tournament if they were allowed in.
That is not to be, but the Huskies created yet another game to savor, for their fans another night to remember and their detractors another day to scratch their heads and wonder how on earth they do it.
"We get back in the fight," coach Kevin Ollie said, after UConn outlasted Cincinnati, 73-66, in overtime Thursday night, before 11,131 at the XL Center. "That's what I love about this team, they keep punching and punching. They're a remarkable team."
Napier, who tied the game with a spectacular drive and scoop with 40 seconds left regulation, scored 27 points, 11 in the overtime session, which he started with three three-point goals.
"I've told you all before," Napier said, "In overtime, I just want to get the game over with. I get tired of playing."
With five games to play, UConn (18-7, 8-5 in the Big East) has equaled its overall and league regular season victory total of a year ago. Here, the Huskies kept Cincinnati (19-8, 7-7) from notching its 20th win, and won on a night when their hottest perimeter shooter, Omar Calhoun, was playing with a sprained wrist and unable to shoot, on a night they were out-rebounded 44 to 28, and yet somehow scored as many points, 18, in the five-minute overtime as they did in the dismal 20 minutes of the second half.
"It was a gritty, gutty win," Ollie said, "and we've proven we can win this type of game once again."
Napier: "We're playing with so much passion right now."
UConn led 43-38 early in the second half, but went 8:49 without scoring, missing eight shots. The Huskies were fortunate, and effective enough on defense, that Cincinnati scored just five points during the span, and were tied at 43 when Tyler Olander dunked it to end the long scoring drought.
"We weren't able to knock down shots," Deandre Daniels said, "but we were able to get stops at the other end, and that's what kept us in the game."
Sean Kilpatrick's three-pointer, however, put the Bearcats ahead, 46-45, with 8:03 to play and it was clear UConn would be in for another possession-by-possession grinder down the stretch. Shabazz Napier's pass to Daniels for a lay-in put UConn back on top, but Kilpatrick hit another three and so it went.
Ollie took a timeout with 5:18 left and the Huskies down 51-47 to try to draw something up and regain the lost momentum. But the Huskies continued to look lost on offense, the Bearcats barring every route to the rim.
Finally, Napier penetrated, then kicked it back out to Daniels for an open three that Daniels hit to bring UConn back within one, firing up the crowd with under three minutes left. Napier hit one of two free throws with 1:30 left to tie it.
"The last three minutes of the game, and OT, it was just put it in Shabazz's hands and let him make a play," Ollie said, "there weren't a lot of X's and O's."
Cashmere Wright took a long three pointer with 59 seconds left. The ball rattled out, but Titus Rubles was there for the put-back, continuing Cincinnati's dominance on the boards, and put the Bearcats up by two.
Napier drove the lane and tied it with his ridiculous move, and the Huskies' trapping defense forced a turnover at midcourt, giving them a chance to win. Napier dribbled the clock down, then drove the lane and tried a similar scoop, but this one did not fall and it was on to overtime for the fifth time this season. They are 4-1 in those games.
"It never should have come to that," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "We knew the play they were going to run for Napier and we tried to send him to the left. …. In overtime, the scouting report says he is a streaky shooter. When he made the first one, I understand, but not the second and third one."
Daniels, who was taken out after 90 seconds for messing up a designed play, came back in to score 17 points, with five rebounds and four blocks. Ryan Boatright had a second consecutive poor shooting night, hitting 3 of 12, but he played effective defense on Cincinnati's Wright, holding him scoreless in the second half and OT, and Boatright hit two key free throws with 40 seconds to go in OT. Both earned praise from their coach, Daniels for "taking it like a man" when he was benched, and Boatright for "not hanging his head" when his shots didn't fall. And Calhoun, who took only three shots from the floor, made 6-of-9 from the line and grabbed six rebounds.
Once Napier began OT with a three, reminiscent of his 11-point overtime output against South Florida on Feb. 3, the Huskies were off and running again. The Bearcats were 26-of-63 from the floor, 6-for-22 on three-point shots. UConn made 10 of its 19 threes.
"It was a huge win," Boatright said, "because we got right track going into DePaul [Saturday night]. It would have been devastating to drop two straight, especially considering it was our last XL game of the year. We really wanted to leave our fans here with something good to remember."