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UConn, Saint Joseph's put fans in bonus situation

OK, so the NCAA can be nauseating at its highest levels with its hypocritical rules and commercialism and millions of dollars made off the backs of athletes. I'm waiting for the day when its members revolt and create a new organization that will rewrite its archaic rules and make sense of college athletics.

But every year, when the NCAA Tournament rolls around, we're hooked. We're filling out our brackets and crowding around our televisions and pouring into taverns anticipating days like Thursday in First Niagara Center. Really, what more could any hoops junkie want than the games played downtown?

Yes, that's why we keep coming back.

Let's start with the thriller between Connecticut and Saint Joseph's, which provided so many great moments over 40 minutes that they were kind enough to provide bonus action for basketball fans who couldn't get enough. UConn ended up winning, 89-81, in overtime, a result that mattered little to anyone who wasn't pulling for either team.

Saint Joe's couldn't have played much harder or much better before falling in the end. The Hawks were relentless on defense in the first half. They were down in the second half and came back. They had numerous chances to win late in regulation before they emptied their tank and returned to Philadelphia for the offseason.

DeAndre Daniels scored 18 points, none bigger than the soaring three-pointer that gave UConn a 67-66 lead with just more than two minutes remaining. St. Joe's came back, of course, before Amida Brimah, a 7-footer from Ghana who averaged 4.3 points per game, converted a three-point play with 39 seconds left in regulation.

Shabazz Napier nearly won the game in regulation after he took a relay from a long pass with 2.7 seconds remaining, but his runner clanked off the rim to force overtime. The Huskies gained control in OT, but there were still a few anxious moments in the final minute that kept people out of their seats.

“I mean, this is March Madness, baby,” Daniels said. “You never know what you're going to get. It's always going to be an exciting game, and you never know what's going to happen. It's two teams out there battling and giving it their all, and we came out with the win today.”

Man, what a game.

And what a day.

The UConn-Joe's game should have been expected after Dayton dumped Ohio State earlier in the afternoon. Vee Sanford drove to the basket and banked a shot off the glass for the winner, giving Dayton a monstrous win over the giant 68 miles away. Flyers coach Archie Miller was an assistant coach at Ohio State before bolting for Dayton.

Aaron Craft had a chance to win the game for Ohio State, but his shot fell off the rim as the horn sounded. For a moment, as he drove toward the basket, there was a sense Craft would find a way, as he has so many times, and the Buckeyes would persevere, as big schools often do. This time, it fell the other way.

And that's what the tournament brings every year. It's not every game, of course. The basketball gods are thoughtful enough to give people a break from the drama that comes with the Big Dance. But the minute fans are finished gathering themselves, they're hankering for more in the next game.

Syracuse, the honorary home team, blew out Western Michigan with a dominating performance that made you wonder A) how the Orange lost five of their final seven games and B) how anyone could possibly beat them in the next two weeks. It's not often the majority of fans are happy leaving any venue in Buffalo.

UConn next gets a date with No. 2 seed Villanova, which on Thursday night beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 73-53. The two former Big East rivals will meet Saturday at 9:40 p.m.

It's teams like that and days like Thursday that build the tournament's rich history.

The Huskies were intent on making a point Thursday. The Huskies won a national championship in 2011, when they were a No. 8 seed. They were one and done the following season. Last year, they were ineligible. The freshmen who remained from their title team wanted to make their marks as seniors.

For a while, it looked like Saint Joseph's would send them moping back to Connecticut for a third straight season. Napier had only five points in the first half while under the tight supervision of Saint Joe's freshman DeAndre Bembry, an athletic player and tireless defender who usually guards the top offensive player regardless of position.

Bembry started guarding Napier when he stepped out of his hotel room and took away the lane to the elevator. It looked like Napier, the conference player of the year, could be in for a long evening. Napier came back and scored 19 points in the second half and overtime and made all eight of his free-throw attempts.

After the game, he made a point to stop Langston Galloway, who was terrific in leading Saint Joe's with 25 points, to console him and tell him how much he respected him. It always comes back to the athletes, who play for all the right reasons.

“That's what these games are all about,” Napier said. “Any team on any given day can beat a big team, and that's what you want.

“That's why I came to the University of Connecticut, to play in these tournaments and give myself and my teammates a chance to hoist that trophy at the end of the day.”