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UConn and Boatright have plenty to play for once again

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Ryan Boatright is looking to drive the Huskies back to a familiar place: the NCAA tournament.

NEW YORK -- About midway through the second half against Boston College on Thursday night, Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright fed teammate DeAndre Daniels for a dunk and gave the 18th-ranked Huskies a comfortable 11-point lead over the Eagles, who have just one win this season.

It was UConn's biggest advantage of the night, and it wouldn't last. The Huskies survived 72-70 but only when Boatright blocked a BC three-point shot that would have won the game.

Nothing, it seems, has come easily for the Huskies or Boatright the past couple years.

It started just a few months after UConn won its third and most recent national championship in 2011. Boatright arrived on campus that fall but was forced to sit out nine games that season by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits. In June 2012, the team was banned from participating in the 2013 NCAA tournament because of low Academic Progress Report scores. Hall of Fame head coach Jim Calhoun then retired that September, replaced by former UConn guard Kevin Ollie, an assistant coach who had never been a head coach before and was given just a one-year contract.

Just finishing that season felt like an accomplishment. Director of Athletics Wadre Manuel presented the team with a plaque after its overtime win against Providence closed out a 20-10 (10-8 Big East) season. There were some signature wins, including an upset against No. 14 Michigan State in the season opener, but the plaque was for perseverance.

"I don't think any coach has ever gone through what I had to go through in my first year," Ollie told SI.com after the win against Boston College. "But there are some things that you can't go around, you can't go over or under -- you just have to go through."

Going through meant ignoring the rumors about who might replace him as head coach. Going through meant convincing three recruits to come to UConn when he wasn't sure he could coach them all the way through college. Going through meant constantly reminding his players that, although they were banned from the tournament, they weren't banned from encouraging and supporting each other.

But here's what going through got him: a five-year contract extension, the trust of his team and incredible chemistry among his three key returning starters. No one would have blinked if Boatright, Daniels or Shabazz Napier had decided to transfer or declare for the NBA draft, but they took what they learned last year and decided to stick together.

For Boatright, a 6-foot junior, and Napier, a 6-1 senior, this season is about balancing the priorities of the team with proving that they are more than borderline NBA prospects. This summer, Boatright spent hours each weekday reviewing film and discovered that his greatest strengths -- his speed and his ability to create baskets -- were hurting his team as often as they were helping. Boatright, an undersized college player who has averaged 13.0 points per game in his career but only 4.0 assists against 2.6 turnovers, understands that he can't have gaps in his game at the next level.

"I think I'm an NBA prospect," Boatright said. "But I knew I had to develop as more of a pure point guard. The days of the Allen Iverson-type 2 guard are gone. And I know that if I focus on making my teammates better and helping my team win, that will help me out in the end too."

Ollie and Napier have been two big influences on him. Ollie, who played 13 years in the NBA, is helping Boatright fill those gaps in his game in part by showing him how Napier plays with cool and control. And Napier, the team's leading scorer and a key part of the 2011 championship team, never seems to miss an opportunity to teach: During the second half against BC, he brought up the ball in transition and heard Boatright screaming for a shot from the wing. He turned toward him and yelled, "Chill!" Boatright relented, and the Huskies got a bucket anyway.

Neither Napier nor Boatright is a lock to someday be selected in the NBA draft, but Daniels, a 6-9 junior, almost certainly is. He returned to school to gain experience at his more natural position, small forward, and to find consistency in his game. That is still a work in progress. He was held scoreless in 18 minutes against Yale in UConn's second game of the season and had just 19 points total thorough three games, but he's scored 47 in the last two, including a game-high 23 on Thursday.

All three Huskies have the same goal: returning UConn to the NCAA tournament, for which it is once again eligible. You could hear it from Daniels, who compared the tough win against Boston College to a postseason game, and Boatright, who said, "With March in mind, everyone is working harder."

The Huskies will have another tourney-worthy test when they take on a young and talented Indiana team Friday in the championship game of the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden. They then will face No. 16 Florida at home in Stoors, Conn., on Dec. 2.

Those challenges are relatively tame compared to what UConn and Boatright have already faced. Both team and player already proved they could persevere last year, when they played like they had nothing to lose. Now that the tournament ban has been lifted, the Huskies -- and their small guard with big dreams -- can play like they have everything to gain.

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