Boatright stays on course

Ryan Boatright celebrates during the closing seconds of UConn's 60-54 victory over Michigan State in the East Region title game on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

Ryan Boatright embodies everything the UConn basketball program is all about this season.

He possesses an inner toughness.

He's fiercely loyal.

He's unselfish, a team player.

He has a competitive heart that never stops beating.

"No matter what, he's going to give it his all," senior Shabazz Napier said. "That's all you can ask from somebody. If somebody is going to give up their heart, you're going to respect them for that."

UConn wouldn't be playing in the Final Four on Saturday night against Florida in Arlington, Texas, without Boatright's valuable and somewhat underrated contribution.

While Boatright resides in the sizeable shadow of Napier, a consensus All-American, his teammates and coaching staff certainly appreciate what he's meant to the program.

"He's meant a lot to us, not only in the game what you see on (TV) but what he's done in practice, being more vocal, being a leader and just really helping our team," coach Kevin Ollie said.

Boatright, a junior, has had better scoring numbers before but never a bigger impact than this season. He's a tenacious defender and respected leader. He's playing under control and making good decisions.

Ollie has seen a spike in Boatright's maturity level.

"Ryan is growing up," Ollie said. "Ryan is allowing us to coach him now. He's opening up and he's trusting us more. That's always difficult for young kids sometimes ... the trust issue. Does coach have my back?

"Maybe I should not take this shot. Maybe I should pass this shot up for Amida (Brimah) to have a great shot. He's starting to do that."

Boatright has fought his way through his share of adversity to reach this stage. As a freshman, he missed nine games, including UConn's first six, due to NCAA eligibility issues. It was a crushing blow to the young guard.

He was hit with an emotional sledgehammer last January when a close cousin died. He missed the Temple game to attend the funeral back home in Aurora, Ill.

"God doesn't give you anything you can't handle," Boatright said. "My mom always preaches that to me. … I've been through a lot. But I'm not the only person that's been through a lot in life. I'm not going to give up. I just grind hard every day.

"I wake up, say my prayers and I go do what I've got to do every day."

On the court, Boatright has strengthened his bond with Napier, with whom he shares a similar background - both from rough inner-city neighborhoods - and a passion for the game.

Like any backcourt marriage, their relationship is not perfect. They've exchange heated words at times during games, but worked through their conflicts.

It's been a process.

"We just both had to mature, basically," Boatright said. "We just learned how to play with each other. There just couldn't be any jealously or any selfishness. We lived together last year so we got to know each other a lot. We started hanging out and stuff like that.

"Just being together every day throughout the years, we just naturally started bonding. Now we're brothers. We're going to bump heads sometimes, but we love each other. And we want the best for each other."

They've grown to appreciate and respect each other, according to Napier.

"There's no beef with us at all," Napier said. "We may go at it on the court and that's just because we're passionate about our game. We're passionate about winning the game. We understand that. We don't take anything further than that.

"I just want him to play up to his game and he wants me to play up to my game."

Boatright and Napier are working toward a common goal - to help UConn win its fourth national championship.

Both players elected to stay at UConn when the program was reeling from a postseason ban and going through a coaching change. Last fall, Boatright had the word 'Loyalty' tattooed on his chest. His mother taught him the importance of being loyal.

"Loyalty is everything to me," he said. "I committed to UConn, coach Calhoun and the program. Just because we were going through some tough times, doesn't mean that you just leave.

"I stayed and I played for this program. I'm reaping the benefits right now. It feels even better."

g.keefe@theday.com

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