Huskies have extra motivation this time around

Buffalo, N.Y. — As they prepared for their latest NCAA tournament adventure, they reflected on their past trips.

Some veteran UConn players have vastly different memories.

Seniors Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander experienced the joy and thrill of winning a 2011 national championship.

Juniors Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels suffered a humbling opening round loss to Iowa State two years ago.

They all share the pain of sitting out last season due to a postseason ban.

All those experiences fuel them heading into tonight's NCAA East Region opener against 10th-seeded Saint Joseph's University (24-9). Game time is 6:55 p.m. at First Niagara Center.

The seventh-seeded Huskies (26-8) are a confident and driven bunch.

"We just refuse to let it happen again," Boatright said of the early exit in 2012. "Just losing in the first round and not being able to play in it last year, it just sticks with you. We're going into this game hungry. We're going into the tournament hungry, hungry as a collective group. We're looking forward to getting out there."

Boatright added that failing to respect Iowa State contributed to their downfall in 2012. The Huskies were caught looking ahead.

They insist they won't repeat the same mistake tonight. The Hawks are a major roadblock and first hurdle for UConn to clear to stay on track to achieve its ultimate goal of winning a national championship.

"St. Joe's is a great team, a great opportunity for us," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I think us not playing last year and us watching Selection Sunday and not seeing UConn going in, it was just fuel for the fire. I think they're not taking anything for granted because they know a special moment can be taken away from them."

The Hawks are hungry, too. This is a new experience for this team, making the program's first appearance since 2008. So they're determined to advance in postseason.

Coach Phil Martelli doesn't want the joy ride to end just yet.

"This isn't enough just to come here," Martelli said. "The way I've explained it to them this week is your euphoria goes to a 50 if you're one of 32 teams still playing on Saturday."

Drawing UConn as an NCAA tournament opponent helped Saint Joseph's get over its celebratory hangover from winning the conference tournament championship, according to Martelli.

The Hawks know they're facing a program with three national championships. Martelli reminded his players that Kemba Walker, Rudy Gay, Ray Allen and Emeka Okafor aren't playing tonight.

But UConn is still UConn.

"They have a whole other cast of players who are of that ilk," Martelli said.

Martelli has his most talented team since the 2003-04 Hawks who reached the NCAA Elite Eight, a journey that went through Buffalo.

Senior guard Langston Galloway, the program's all-time leader in 3-point field goals, is the top perimeter threat and senior forwards Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic also provide offensive firepower and rebounding muscle. One thing the Hawks do lack is depth, as Martelli leans heavily on his starting five.

UConn is riding the momentum from a strong run in the American Athletic Conference tournament last week in Memphis.

As senior Shabazz Napier points out, the Huskies didn't win a championship, but the Hawks did.

"They're just a solid team that's going to grind out games to get it close so they can win," Napier said. "We've just got to do our best job of making it uncomfortable for them. It's going to be tough. They're here for a reason. We've just got to play basketball the way we play."

g.keefe@theday.com

UConn vs. Saint Joseph

Game: NCAA tournament opener

Tip-off time: 6:55 p.m. (TBS)

Location: First Niagara Center, Buffalo.

Records: Seventh-seeded UConn 26-8, No. 10 Saint Joseph's 24-9

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 sr. guard Shabazz Napier (17.4 pts, 5.9 rebs, 4.9 assists), 6-0 jr. guard Ryan Boatright (11.8 pts, 3.5 assists), 6-9 jr. forward DeAndre Daniels (12.5 pts, 5.8 rebs), 6-7 sr. forward Niels Giffey (8.5 pts, 3.4 rebs), 7-0 fr. center Amida Brimah (4.3 pts, 3.1 rebs 2.5 blks)

Saint Joseph's, 6-3 jr. guard Chris Wilson (9.0 pts), 6-2 sr. guard Langston Galloway (17.5 pts, 4.3 rebs), 6-6 fr. forward DeAndre Bembry (12.0 pts, 4.5 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Ronald Roberts (14.4 pts, 7.4 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Halil Kanacevic (10.7 pts, 8.8 rebs, 4.4 assists)

Noteworthy: First NCAA game since 2012 and Hawks last appeared in 2008. … Series: UConn leads 4-2, winning 67-61 in only NCAA match-up in 1965. First regular season meeting since 1989. … Hawks are 20-5 since losing to Villanova on Dec. 7. … Player to watch: Kanacevic, MOP of A-10 championship tourney. … All five St. Joe starters average at least 31.8 minutes. ... Top reserve: 6-7 forward Isaiah Miles (3.2 pts, 1.8 rebs). … … Hawks average 7.4 3-pters per game. Galloway program's all-time leader. … Hot: Daniels averaging 15.2 pts and 8.0 rebs in last four games. Cold: UConn shooting 40.5 percent in last 10 games. ... Huskies 7-5 vs. NCAA field and Hawks 6-5. … UConn 52-29 in 31 NCAA appearances, including 29-5 in the first two rounds. St. Joe's 18-23 in 19 trips. … Up next: Winner plays either No. 2 Villanova or No. 15 Milwaukee on Saturday.

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