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UConn men beat PC in final Big East game

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published March 10. 2013 4:00AM

Storrs - Still basking in the glow of another dramatic victory, players gathered near midcourt one final time to watch season highlights on the Gampel Pavilion video-board.

It was an emotional, touching scene. Some shed tears. The thought of an extraordinary season ending was hard to digest.

"I'm just sentimental," junior Shabazz Napier said. "I saw R.J. (Evans) crying and it just hit me that we're not playing any more. I was crying in the locker room."

The postgame tribute gave UConn and its fans a chance to celebrate the season, including Saturday's 63-59 overtime win over Providence in the program's final Big East game. A postseason ban prevents them from participating in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

UConn exceeded expectations, piling up 20 wins and finishing with a winning Big East record (10-8) for the first time since 2008-09. The Huskies scored high marks for heart, toughness and team unity, coming together instead of coming apart in the face of adversity.

Saturday's season finale served as another example.

"Fantastic year," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I'm very sad that it's over with, but I'm very happy and satisfied with what this team gave me. … It's just special, because what those kids went through when nobody believed in them, when people left, they stayed as a brotherhood. … Now they're part of something special and they're always going to remember this.

"… There's something special about UConn and we just showed it again."

There were so many storylines in this drama.

Napier returned to the lineup after sitting out two games with a sore right foot. He battled through pain, finishing with 16 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals in 44 minutes.

The Huskies were a vastly different team than the previous two games - both losses - with their influential leader on the floor.

"He played marvelously, running the tempo and controlling the whole game," Ollie said. "He was just a special player out there."

Emerging star DeAndre Daniels contributed 19 points, eight rebounds, four blocks and two steals.

UConn was still shorthanded, missing two starters - Omar Calhoun and Tyler Olander - and reserve Niels Giffey due to injuries, forcing others to play bigger roles.

It didn't matter.

"We were never going to give up and never quit," Napier said. "It seemed so right. It showed just today that no matter what's going on we're going to step up."

The Huskies relied on their trademark resiliency. They led by as many as 10 in the first half and held a 32-26 lead at the break. They kept fighting when Providence opened the second half with a 10-2 run and took a 36-34 lead on a driving basket by New London's Kris Dunn (11 points).

With 32 seconds left in regulation, Boatright made two free throws to tie the game. Daniels blocked LaDontae Henton's game-tying attempt in the closing seconds.

Playing a single-season record seventh overtime game, UConn leaned on Napier and sophomore Ryan Boatright who accounted for all eight points in the extra session.

Boatright (game-high 23 points) delivered the game's biggest basket in overtime. With the score tied 59-all, UConn ran an isolation play for Boatright, who drove the lane and made contact with Bryce Cotton. He created some space and fired up an off-balance fadeaway 16-foot jumper.

The game-winning shot went in much to the delight of a soldout crowd. And Boatright was fouled, too. He finished off the 3-point play for a 62-59 lead with 19 seconds left.

"Once I got the separation, I put it up there with all the confidence in the world and it went in," Boatright said.

After Cotton missed a 3-pointer, Napier grabbed the rebound. Napier finished off the Friars by making two free throws.

A memorable season ended in fitting fashion.

Life is changing dramatically for UConn, which will be in a new conference next season.

"We've got a new conference we're playing in and new players," Ollie said. "They can take the Big East but they can't ever take UConn. We stand on something very, very solid and we're going to build on it one brick at a time."

g.keefe@theday.com

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