Boatright is having fun once again

Ryan Boatright of UConn, top, tumbles over Davante Gardner of Marquette in a game at Milwaukee on Jan. 1.
Ryan Boatright of UConn, top, tumbles over Davante Gardner of Marquette in a game at Milwaukee on Jan. 1. Jeffrey Phelps/AP Photo

Ryan Boatright has recaptured his sheer joy for playing a sport that he loves. His mother, Tanesha, can clearly see it when watching UConn games on television.

Boatright has the same passion and infectious energy that he did starring for East Aurora High School in Illinois.

He's soaring for one-handed dunks, accelerating to warp speed and blowing by defenders, making nifty passes and helping the Huskies win.

"He's having fun," Tanesha said Thursday. "That's what we saw in Aurora. That's what we're used to seeing. … he's playing like he's happy now. It's exciting. As a mother, it gives me peace to see him enjoying what he likes to do and that's to play basketball."

Tanesha is thrilled that her oldest child is playing relatively close to home today against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. And so are other members of a large Boatright fan club traveling party that will make the over two-hour drive from Aurora. Game time for the Big East game is 2 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion.

"I can't wait to get back out there and play in front of my family and friends that have not seen me play in a while," Boatright said earlier this week.

Boatright, a sophomore guard, is playing his best basketball of his career, averaging 16.2 points and a team-best 4.5 assists. He's making good decisions, playing with poise and being a defensive pest.

"He's really come into his own," associate head coach Glen Miller said.

This road trip holds special significance for Boatright and his family.

Almost exactly a year ago at Notre Dame, Boatright hit the low point of his career. He learned at the team meal the night before the game that the NCAA had suspended him a second time for receiving impermissible benefits.

The news sent shock waves through his family. The timing was especially cruel.

"It was very, very hard…," Tanesha said. "We were six minutes away from the hotel when Ryan called saying coach (Jim) Calhoun told him he couldn't play. I literally almost wrecked my vehicle because it threw me into shock.

"… He was so hurt and disappointed, but he channeled it so well. He had so much family there, but he couldn't show it. He wanted to be strong. He was such a trooper."

Boatright pushed aside his pain while sitting on the bench. His teammates rallied behind him, posting a 67-53 win.

"He showed some resiliency and a lot of pride," Miller said. "He really handled it well."

Two suspensions - losing six games to start the season and three more in January - disrupted his development. Boatright never settled into a rhythm, never completely rediscovered his joy for playing basketball.

Returning this season even more determined to make an impact, he's flourished under first-year head coach Kevin Ollie, whose positive yet demanding approach has struck the right cord with his players. His teammates feed off his energy and enthusiasm.

"He's really matured as a player," Miller said. "He's just grown into so much more of leader and his decision making has improved so much. … He really has made significant progress. It's amazing where he is now considering how many games he missed his freshman year."

Last season's adversity helped him arrive at this point.

"It just made me stronger as a man and as a player," Boatright said. "You don't take things for granted. You understand it can be taken away from you at any time. Just going through that situation and not being able to do something that you love, it makes you grow up and become more mature, too.

"I'm much better and a more mature man and better player this year."

Boatright and Shabazz Napier form one of the top backcourts in the Big East Conference. In the last four games, they've averaged 38.3 points, 9.8 rebounds and 10.3 assists per game.

They'll match up today against what Notre Dame coach Mike Brey considers the top backcourt in the country. Juniors Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant have directed the Fighting Irish's efficient and balanced attack. Notre Dame (14-1, 2-0) has won 12 in a row.

"It's a great match-up," Brey said. "Eric and Jerian really love the challenges that we're going to have on Saturday and I'm so impressed with how Napier and Boatright are playing right now. They really make them go."

Boatright is just grateful that he'll be able to play in front of his family and friends.

"Just knowing where I was at last year and knowing I'll be able to play, I feel like I'm blessed," Boatright said. "I'm just happy to be able to play the game of basketball."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN at No. 17 NOTRE DAME

Location: Purcell Pavilion, South Bend, Ind.

Tip-off time: 2 p.m. (SNY)

Records: UConn 11-3, 1-1; Notre Dame 14-1, 2-0

Last game: UConn beat DePaul, 99-78, Tuesday; Notre Dame won at Cincinnati, 66-60, Monday.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 jr. guard Shabazz Napier (17.4 pts, 4.5 rebs, 4.0 assists), 6-0 so. guard Ryan Boatright (16.2 pts, 4.5 assists), 6-5 fr. guard Omar Calhoun (10.6 pts, 3.3 rebs), 6-8 so. forward DeAndre Daniels (11.2 pts, 4.4 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Tyler Olander (4.6 pts, 3.9 rebs)

Notre Dame, 6-1 jr. guard Eric Atkins (11.2 pts, 7.3 assists), 6-5 jr. guard Jerian Grant (12.7 pts, 5.3 assists), 6-5 so. guard Pat Connaughton (9.0 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-8 gr. forward Scott Martin (9.7 pts, 6.4 rebs), 6-9 sr. forward Jack Cooley (15.2 pts, 11.2 rebs).

Noteworthy, Challenging stretch for Huskies who play consecutive games vs. ranked foes. … UConn 1-1 so far vs. ranked teams. … ND won 12 in a row, unbeaten at home at 11-0. Huskies snapped ND's 29 game home win streak last season with 67-53 win. … Series history: UConn leads, 17-10, splitting two meetings last season. ND won four of last five in series. … Stat to watch: assists. ND tops in country at 19.9 per game. … Hot: Fighting Irish first in BE in FG percentage (51.4) and 3-pt FG percentage (41.5). Cold: Huskies 14th in BE in rebounding margin at minus 4.0. … Cooley leads league in rebounding. … Fighting Irish 26-6 in last 32 BE games. … Olander coming off season high 10 pts vs. DePaul … Up next: UConn hosts No. 3 Louisville Monday in Hartford.

- Gavin Keefe

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