It seems Husky Nation has a new favorite player. And guess what? Boatright digs the crowd right back.
"I definitely play off the crowd," the freshman point guard said after scoring 23 points and handing out six assists to lead No. 8 UConn (7-1) to a 75-62 victory over Arkansas (5-2) before a crowd of 14,333. "My high school, we always sold out our gym and our crowd is amazing. So, I definitely play off the crowd. It gives us more energy. It brings you that second wind faster than it normally comes. The crowd is great."
And Boatright, playing his first game before the UConn crowd, is pretty special too. UConn trailed 3-1 when coach Jim Calhoun summoned him off the bench with 17:21 left in the first half. The Huskies, who initially reacted poorly to the Razorbacks' pressure defense, fell behind 8-1 just over a minute later.
But then the Boat Show, as it is already being called, began. A Jeremy Lamb steal led to a breakout for the Huskies, Lamb dished to Boatright, who found Alex Oriakhi trailing on the fastbreak. Oriakhi, back in the starting lineup for a confidence boost from Calhoun, threw down a powerful dunk and was fouled for a three-point play.
On the next possession, Boatright stripped the ball from Julysses Nobles, took the ball the other way, and made a nifty shift to his left hand for a layup that pulled UConn within 8-6.
The game had changed. Forward Tyler Olander (12 points), coming off the bench for the first time this season, hit back-to-back buckets to give UConn the lead. Shabazz Napier (9 points, 7 assists) and Lamb (14 points) warmed up from three-point range. And when Boatright scored on a fastbreak layup with 6:19 left, the Huskies had surged ahead 31-19.
"Ryan was pretty special," Calhoun said. "He has those Allen Iverson kind of things where his athletic ability just allows him to do some pretty special things that you don't normally see.
"Secondly, he's not afraid. That's one of the big issues for all athletes, to never have any fear. I don't think he fears making a mistake. If I yell at him, he'll go back out and play the same way. Obviously I love that kind of player."
There weren't many mistakes to yell about – at least in relation to Boatright. He was 8-for-12 from the field, 2-for-3 on three-pointers, 5 of 8 from the free throw line, had five defensive rebounds, two steals, one block and only two turnovers.
Boatright missed UConn's two exhibition games and the first six regular season games after an eligibility review by the NCAA that led to a six-game suspension. When that penalty – for accepting improper benefits during his AAU career – ended, he played 33 minutes in his debut against Florida State and scored 14 points in UConn's Battle 4 Atlantis consolation game victory.
He was allowed to practice during the suspension and went against the likes of Ray Allen, Kemba Walker and Rudy Gay in workouts. His 31.2 scoring average as a senior at East Aurora High School in suburban Chicago is a well-known fact. But even the most optimistic UConn fan couldn't have predicted the way he has changed the outlook of the Huskies, especially in a three-guard set that includes Lamb and Napier.
"He really gave them a big-time lift," said Mike Anderson, in his first season as Arkansas coach after leaving Missouri. "He did a good job of breaking down our defense and getting in the lane. Whether he'd make the shot or pass it off, he did an excellent job.
"I saw the game he played against Florida State and I thought he was the difference in that game as well. He's a good, crafty little guard. With Shabazz and him on the same team – and then you've got a guy like Lamb that can knock it down at any point in time – that's a good tandem there."
Arkansas has a talented freshman guard as well and B.J. Young came off the bench to score a career-high 28 points on 10-for-20 shooting (5-for-6 on threes). Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, the rest of the team made only 14 of 57 shots. Arkansas shot 31.2 percent from the field, while the Huskies ripped it up pretty good at 57.1 percent.
Calhoun wasn't happy that UConn was outrebounded 47-35. The margin on the offensive boards favored Arkansas 27-4. But Anderson had a good explanation for that.
"We missed a lot of shots, so there were a lot of rebounds to be gotten, I guess," he said.
For the Huskies, the numbers were secondary. UConn played its best game and after two games with Boatright it is obvious the three-guard lineup is a huge weapon for the Huskies.
"He's just playing hard and really bringing energy," Lamb said. "His first couple of games he has been playing great."
What's the future hold? Evidently, nothing that figures to surprise Boatright.
"I always have confidence in myself," he said. "I came from high school scoring 40, so I know I can score. It's not about me scoring. I don't care if I have three points, as long as we win I'll be fine.
"You can't be scared of nothing. If you go out there scared, it's like blood in the water. They're going to attack you. Growing up the way I grew up, I'm not scared of anything. I've been in some tough situations."