ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Ryan Boatright has been through his share of adversity on and, heartbreakingly, off the court.
Whatever happens, the proud, gritty guard finds a way to fight through it.
Capping a difficult season that included the death of his cousin, Boatright was at his best on college basketball’s biggest stage, helping Connecticut win its second national title in four years with a 60-54 victory over Kentucky on Monday night.
“It feels so good to prove the world wrong,” Boatright said after scoring 14 points against the Wildcats.
A highly-touted freshman when he arrived in Storrs, Conn., Boatright played with a chip on his shoulder that sometimes came across as arrogance, particularly when it came to questioning his coaches.
He matured more as the years went by and this season teamed with Shabazz Napier to form a dynamic duo in UConn’s backcourt.
Boatright’s season threatened to come unraveled in January, when his cousin, 20-year-old Arin Williams, was shot to death in his hometown of Aurora, Ill. The news hit him hard; they grew up together in the same house.
Boatright worked his way through the grief and kept playing, fighting through some difficult games late in the season.
Once the NCAA tournament started, he became a dual-threat force, breaking down opponents by getting into the lane and hounding opposing point guards with a pit-bull ferocity.
The junior scored in double figures every game in the tournament and was a defensive menace, swiping four steals against Michigan State in the East Regional final and badgering Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin into his worst offensive game of the season in the national semifinals.
Boatright was a difference-maker in the title game, too.
He and Napier combined to out-flank the athletic Wildcats, pushing the Huskies to a 15-point lead in the first half. Boatright repeatedly got into the lane against Kentucky, driving for layups and kicking out to shooters, and left the Wildcats flatfooted with one reverse-his-course dribble that led to a reverse layup.
The feisty 6-foot combo guard also flexed his defensive muscles, helping hold Kentucky twins Aaron and Andrew Harrison to nine combined points on 6-of-16 shooting.
And when UConn needed a shot the most, it was Boatright, not Napier who hit it, dropping in a step-back jumper that pushed the Huskies lead to 56-50 with just over 4 minutes left after Kentucky had rallied.
“Boatright’s shot, huge shot, (it’s) like they’re dying and he makes a step-back,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Soon, it will be time for Boatright to step back and assess his future.
Though undersized — a whopping 168 pounds — he’s proven that he can handle himself against the best in the country. He also has good shooting touch and range, a superb first step and ability to finish at the rim and, every coach’s favorite, loves to play in-you-jersey defense.
The NBA, particularly after a run like this, could be around the corner for Boatright — at some point.
If he stays in college for another year as expected, he’ll take over Napier’s leadership role.
“I’m going to enjoy this as much as I can,” Boatright said. “I’m not thinking about the future right now. I’m enjoying the present.”
He should. It’s pretty good.
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