Without Shabazz Napier, the Huskies did most of the things they usually do with him. They grappled, scrambled back from behind and gave themselves a chance to win another game.
But, without Napier, out with an injured foot, the Huskies could not get over the top. Ultimately, they erred on their last two possessions, losing the ball twice, and with them a chance to tie the game. Cincinnati prevailed 61-56 Saturday in Big East men's basketball before 12,432 at Fifth Third Arena.
"I can't question their heart, I can't question their fight," coach Kevin Ollie said, his demeanor as testy as it has been all season. "I don't really want to talk about Shabazz. These guys played hard. These guys put us in a situation to win."
The Huskies, up five, were nearly driven from the gym during the first 10 minutes of the second half, outscored 27-10. They were down 12 with 9:16 to play, but then made the kind of comeback they have made time and again this season, only without Napier, who had been in the middle of all their previous comebacks. Ryan Boatright, who scored 22 points, and DeAndre Daniels, who scored 18, led the Huskies back, and when Daniels completed a three-point play, UConn was down 53-50 with 5:15 left.
UConn missed its first chance to tie when Omar Calhoun's three-point attempt hit the front of the rim on the next possession. The Huskies hung in, and when Boatright made two free throws with 2:19 left, UConn was within two.
When Phil Nolan, who played perhaps his best game of the season, grabbed a rebound and drew a foul, UConn had a chance to tie with 20 seconds left, but he made only one of two free throws, leaving the Huskies a point short. "I probably would feel better about the way I played if we had come away with the win," Nolan said.
The Huskies stole the ball on the inbound pass, but the ball went out of bounds off a Cincinnati player. With 18 seconds left, R.J. Evans, who played most of the day in Napier's spot, tried to throw the inbound pass over the top, but Titus Rubles deflected it, and the Bearcats' Sean Kilpatrick caught it. Kilpatrick (20 points) was fouled, and made both.
"They had a big man on it," Ollie said. "It wasn't R.J.'s fault. They'd been playing us the whole game like that and we'd been getting passes over."
Said Evans: "Rubles made a good play. I didn't think he was going to jump that high. The onus is on me."
UConn had another shot, but Boatright was trapped at midcourt by Cashmere Wright and lost the ball. Wright then made two free throws to seal a win the Bearcats (20-9, 8-8 in the Big East) badly needed.
"I shouldn't have been in that position," Boatright said. "I should have made a better play, or we should have run a better play. ... It was very frustrating, because we were right there. These last two games, we were right there to take the game."
UConn (19-9, 9-7) has two more chances — at South Florida Wednesday and at home against Providence next Saturday, to nail down the elusive 20th win before the balls are put away and they serve their NCAA postseason ban. The Huskies lost to first-place Georgetown in double overtime on Wednesday.
"Another heartbreaker, coming down to the end," Daniels said. "We made some mistakes, some turnovers at the end."
For UConn, the pregame drama surrounded Napier, who arrived at Fifth Third Arena with his team, but was still wearing the walking boot on his injured right foot. Napier never did come out on the floor pregame, and treatment in the locker room could not get him able to play. Evans started in his place at guard.
During the game, Niels Giffey dislocated his right index finger, and Omar Calhoun, his right wrist still bothering him, discarded the wrap he has been wearing, but went 1-for-7 from the floor.
The Huskies came out with dogged defense, holding Cincinnati scoreless the first 3½ minutes. UConn, too, was sluggish offensively, but opened an early lead on three-pointers by Calhoun and Daniels. Midway through the half, Ryan Boatright got to the line on back-to-back possessions and made all five free throws put the Huskies back ahead.
"I wasn't really worried about my play," Boatright said, "I was trying to get other people going because I knew I was going to need a lot of people to step up. I knew I could get to the free throw line, or get a shot off, whenever I wanted to."
The Bearcats edged out to a 21-16 lead with 4:52 to go in the half, but Nolan, in at center, scored on put-backs on back-to-back possessions, and also became a presence on the boards. UConn put together a 9-0 run and led 29-24 at the end of the half.
The Bearcats' pressure took a toll on UConn's ballhandlers, so used to depending on Napier. They ended up with 15 turnovers. After missing 15 of 18 three-point attempts in the first half, Cincinnati made 6 of 10 to open up a 51-39 lead on Jermaine Sanders' lay-in with 9:16 to play. But the Huskies held together and made a run. "Make no mistake," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said, "[our players] knew we needed to win."
The Bearcats had lost three in a row, including the game at UConn on Feb. 21. UConn, outrebounded by 16 in that game, and the Bearcats each had 41 rebounds in this game. The Huskies were 18-for-52 from the floor, 2-for-18 from three-point range.
Ollie said, repeating a familiar refrain, "We're not the prettiest team, we're not going to make every shot, but that's the best attitude team in America right there. That's what I want to coach."