BUFFALO - Just getting into the NCAA Tournament field is great. Getting to stay a couple more days is something altogether different. Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli told his players that it is a "50" on some untold euphoria scale.
Now they know it for a fact. They saw their opponent experience it Thursday night.
They saw Connecticut turn a bleak situation into an 89-81 overtime win on a night when both sides were determined to have more than a "just happy to be here" experience.
UConn overcame a three-point deficit (and momentum deficit) on Amida Brimah's three-point play with 39 seconds left. It forced Saint Joseph's top scorer Langston Galloway (25 points) into a shot-clock violation on its last regulation possession. Shabazz Napier missed at the buzzer, but he scored nine of his 24 points in overtime to help UConn advance to play again Saturday against Villanova.
"We had all the excuses to give up. But guys were just willing each other," said Napier, who was on Connecticut's 2011 NCAA championship team. "That's what you've got to do when you come to these tournaments. You've got to just keep pushing along because anything can happen."
Each side came in with good reason for being happy just to be in the tournament. Players on Saint Joseph's never had been here. UConn was barred last year because of academic violations. Napier said he couldn't even get himself to watch.
But both wanted much more than an appearance. And Napier couldn't have liked what he saw in the first half Thursday night. He scored only five points and Saint Joseph's (24-10) had the better of the play.
The team that won the Atlantic 10 title in Brooklyn was in good shape in the final minute. Then Napier drove to the basket and missed, but Brimah, a freshman from Ghana, grabbed the ball, scored and made the foul shot. "He showed a lot of maturity and a lot of heart for that possession," said Ryan Boatright (17 points). "He went to the line with the swag and all that."
Saint Joseph's Halil Kanacevic, a transfer from Hofstra, said, "I did a horrible job boxing out Brimah. That was a pivotal moment and we had them. I think that hurt us tremendously and I'm sorry for that, honestly."
In overtime, especially after Kanacevic fouled out, it was all UConn. The Huskies knew how dearly both sides scrapped for this game, so Napier hugged Galloway on the court in the final seconds. "When you work so hard for something and it goes down the drain, it saddens me," Napier said.
So UConn (27-8) advances. Hawks seniors, to quote Martelli, go "on their path to life."
Said Kanacevic, "I think I lived the college life. I think I experienced it as great as anybody can. I've been up and I've been really down, from Hofstra to here. I've gotten everything out of the college experience. So I can't really complain that we lost."