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Exhilaration As UConn Learns Its Tournament Destiny

STORRS — Even when you know you are going to the NCAA Tournament, the time it takes to learn your assignment can seem like a decade.

"I didn't even know what was going on," freshman Amida Brimah said. "This is my first time knowing this is what happens. I was a little bit nervous. I was more relieved when I saw our name."

The places where people thought the Huskies would go were filling up, the seed lines where the analysts expected to find the Huskies were filling in fast. Finally, near the end of the selection show, the Huskies learned that they are the No. 7 seed in the East Regional and going to Buffalo to play Saint Joseph's on Thursday in the second round, or round of 64, at 6:55 p.m. at First Niagara Arena.

The freshmen were nervous, until senior Shabazz Napier told them to calm down. But even Napier seemed to find it all a little surreal.

"It's been a while," he said. "Guys were asking me how to react, and I didn't know. It's been two years since I've experienced this. It didn't matter if you're first or last; I'm always anxious about that. You're a little nervous."

Though the seed was less favorable than anticipated, UConn came out from its viewing area focusing on its opportunity.

"Just knowing we're in the tournament, knowing we've got a chance to win a national championship is a great feeling." Ryan Boatright said.

The Huskies, national champions in 2011 when current seniors were freshmen, were ineligible a year ago due to the academic shortcoming of players who preceded them. For the upperclassmen, the most recent tournament appearance ended with a dismal opening-game loss to Iowa State in 2012.

"That was rough, it was rough," Shabazz Napier said. "I thought to myself, 'What was I going to do after that game?' It still didn't hit me that we wouldn't be in the postseason. I was hearing everybody was deciding to leave. Quite frankly, it was mind-boggling.

"But I thought, there's always going to be another chance. I stayed, I gave myself the opportunity to do so."

The road will be difficult for UConn right from the start. St. Joe's (24-9) won the Atlantic 10 Tournament in Brooklyn on Sunday, beating perennial tournament player Virginia Commonwealth to become one of six A-10 teams to get bids. Longtime coach Phil Martelli had four scorers in double figures, including guard Langston Galloway, who averages 17.5 points. Senior forward Halil Kanacevic, at 6-foot-8 and 255 pounds, is a unique player, leading his team in rebounds (8.3) and assists (4.4).

"When they would come into the A-10 tournament," said Lasan Kromah, who played against SJU many times before transferring from George Washington to UConn, "it didn't matter if they were seeded last, they'd play well."

In other words, this is a tough No. 10 seed. If the Huskies win, they would play the winner of No. 2 Villanova vs. No. 15 Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday. The survivor of this Buffalo bracket moves on to Madison Square Garden for the regional semifinals. The top seed in the East is Virginia, the AAC regular season and tournament champion.

"I'm happy with the seeding," coach Kevin Ollie said. "You always want a [higher] seed, but I'm happy for our team. This is their prize for a great season and a great tournament we played down in Memphis. Now, we've got to see what we're going to do with that prize."

The Huskies (26-8) had some impressive wins during their nonconference schedule, including a dramatic one over Florida, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.

"Early in the season, we were at our best," Boatright said. "We beat Florida, and they're the No. 1 team. We have to get back to our roots, play UConn basketball."

UConn stumbled a bit at the start of American Athletic Conference play and lost twice to Southern Methodist, which was snubbed by the selection committee. The league was undervalued, at least compared to bracket analysts' projections.

The Huskies lost three times to Louisville, by 33 in the regular season finale and by 10 in the AAC championship game. Louisville, which many believed could be a No. 1 seed, is a No. 4.

"We have enough talent to win, I truly believe that," Ollie said. "But we can't do it individually. Sometimes we get out of kilter with that where we go off individually. When we play as a team, it's something special to watch."

Napier, along with seniors Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander, have experienced the highest of highs and the emptiest of disappointments, having to stop playing in 2013 despite a 20-10 record.

"The journey is still in progress," Napier said. "I want to hoist that trophy at the end of the day, I want to get as close to it as I possibly can. When you set your sights on just making the tournament, you forget why you want to go. It was a special feeling to get another chance, but you've got to take the opportunity and take advantage of it."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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