Saint Joseph's was one rebound away from killing UConn's story
You might forget, but the Huskies were fairly close to not even making it to the second game of the first weekend, let alone the final game of this tournament.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's 70-67, less than a minute to go.
Connecticut's Shabazz Napier opts to take the ball to the rim. But his layup attempt falls wrong. Freshman teammate Amida Brimah -- a bench guy -- goes up for the rebound against a fellow big and wins the battle for the ball. He puts up a shot, makes it, and is fouled in the process. Brimah, a 57 percent free-throw shooter, then cans the freebie to tie the game at 70.
The free throw, which comes 39 minutes and 20 seconds into the game, is only the fourth attempt from the line for UConn in the entire game. In the ensuing final 40 seconds neither team scores. The outcome needs overtime.
That was the play, according to Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli, that was most responsible for kicking his team out of this tournament and keeping UConn in it. The Huskies, who trailed almost the entire game, pulled away in OT to win 89-81 all the way back in the Round of 64 on March 20.
"The way I see it is, we were a rebound away," Martelli said by phone on Sunday.
And now the seventh-seeded Huskies are going to play Monday night for a national title. What could have been, right? This tournament offers up fine lines between glory and disposable losers, fun alternative-universe scenarios based on the whims of a ball or a rebound or a foul shot. Halil Kanacevic was the Saint Joseph's player who couldn't corral the ball away from Brimah. It was his fourth foul, and Kanacevic's college career would end after he committed the first foul of OT for SJU, which gave UConn a lead it would never again relinquish.
"I definitely didn't want to go out like that," Kanacevic said after that game. "I feel bad, but I tried to stay in the game with the guys. There's nothing you can do at that point."
Remember, Saint Joe's was the A-10 tourney champ, a hot team and chic pick to win the game. UConn had dropped two of its previous four games by an average of 22 points. All of this before the perfect matchup against Villanova, which UConn won by 12. Before the pseudo home-court advantage at Madison Square Garden vs. a hampered-by-injury Iowa State team, and the backcourt mismatch against Michigan State.
Before the most unpredictable outcome of the tournament: UConn beating Florida by double digits without needing a huge game from Napier.
The toughest and closest call UConn's gotten this entire tournament came against Saint Joseph's.
"We never believed we would lose," UConn senior Niels Giffey said. "But everybody was a little rattled in that first tournament game."
Giffey said Napier was calm and confident in the huddle, essentially the reason why the Huskies didn't bow out in Buffalo.
"We became more and more comfortable as [the game went on]," Giffey said. "It was such a weird game. In the blink of an eye the first half was over. ... We had to get used to that type of stage and that type of game."
It was 35-26 Hawks in the first half. Then 39-30. Saint Joe's wasn't fouling and was getting really good play from a really good player, senior Langston Galloway.
All five Saint Joe's players would score in double figures. UConn finished with 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists from Napier. The Hawks were better from the field and shot seven more free throws, in addition to having a higher rebound percentage.
"They played better in their second, third and fourth [tournament] games than they did against us," Martelli said. "But we played better longer than Nova, Iowa State and Michigan State did against them. I think the fact that we had older guys, that we had a short bench. These guys knew and were confident in their abilities. It was a really special game to be a part of."
And DeAndre Daniels, who has definitively established himself as an NBA pick in the past three weeks, scored 18. He was what Martelli was particularly concerned about.
"I felt, early on, that the plan we had put in place was crystallizing," Martelli said. "To me, it's really their third scorer. Napier's Napier and Boatright is Boatright. ... But early on you could see Daniels was getting comfortable. When Daniels started to get going in the second half, he was the third guy, and in watching their games, that was the concern. The biggest concern for us."
How lucky was UConn to escape? Consider: In the past nine games, eight opponents have shot 46 percent or lower against Connecticut. The only team that cracked the trend was Saint Joseph's, which shot 50 percent from the field.
"Even as I sit here today, I don't feel like we lost. They won the game," Martelli said. "What they've done, in my opinion, is they've broken this down into a possession game, not a run game."
Connecticut has unquestionably earned its way to the title game. It needs no excuses or qualifiers to validate its road to national finalist. But the difference between a charmed run and a season spiraling into a forgettable cessation came in the form of a rebound and a made free throw from a raw, unknown role player named Amida.
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