Long journey for Napier and UConn ends with another national title
ARLINGTON, Texas -- What started as the Year of the Freshman in college basketball ended with the Career of Shabazz. As in Napier, Connecticut's senior guard, elder statesman and the rarest of rarities in this one-and-done era: a star who stayed four seasons, improved, progressed and, by the way, managed to win two national championships.
The latest triumph came on Monday night, inside cavernous AT&T Stadium, against Kentucky and another merry band of freshmen superstars. In his freshman season, Napier had struggled on this stage, ceding the spotlight to Kemba Walker as the Huskies beat Butler for the title. Four years later, he seized it -- with scissor-kick jump shots and long-range accuracy and savvy earned the hard way, through trials and experience.
Then, after Connecticut dispatched Kentucky's most fabulous of freshmen to the NBA with a 60-54 victory, Napier stood atop a makeshift court and grabbed the microphone. His 22 points, six rebounds and three assists afforded him that luxury. With NCAA president Mark Emmert standing nearby, with confetti in the air and One Shining Moment all queued up, Napier called for everyone's attention.
"Ladies and gentlemen, you're looking at the Hungry Huskies," he said, an edge to his voice. "This is what happens when you ban us."
So it went on Monday night in the spaceship Jerry Jones built. Experience trumped youth; short guards harassed taller ones; and a program ineligible to compete for the national championship last season due to poor academic standing, a program that finished third in the American Athletic Conference, won its second national title in four seasons.
The Huskies tugged on championship T-shirts. They read: Lone Star Statement.
Napier predicted this after Louisville embarrassed Connecticut for the first time, at home on Jan. 18. Napier said that in the locker room after that game, he told his teammates they would hold up the ultimate trophy at season's end. That sounded silly later, especially as recently as March 8, when the Cardinals trounced the Huskies by 33 points in their second meeting. Yet there was Napier on stage for the post-game celebration, a piece of nylon tucked into his hat. "What did I tell y'all when we lost against Louisville at home," he yelled at his teammates.
Soon, the screams echoed down the hallway, as Connecticut's players filed into their locker room. These were the echoes of experience. One assistant coach searched frantically for a power outlet, with so many text messages to respond to. Another shouted, "Nobody picked us" four times in a row.
Niels Giffey reclined on a chair in the middle of the locker room. He and fellow seniors Napier and Tyer Olander had officially bookended their careers with national championships. Giffey said he meant Kentucky no disrespect, but on the matter of experience vs. youth, even the most talented youth available, he said, "I hope they learn a lesson from that," and by "they," he meant Kentucky and by "that," he meant the loss. He added: "It could really work well if you stay in a program for four years."
Giffey was asked if that experience impacted the game, and the answer seemed so obvious. The Huskies made all 10 of their free throws; the Wildcats missed 11 (out of 24) from the charity stripe. The Huskies jumped to an early lead; the Wildcats never once led. "We wanted it more," Giffey said. "It was more important to us to win this game, to go out and bring the program back on top."
Translation: because they stayed four years, Connecticut's seniors entered Monday night invested. They also did more than simply stay for four years. They stayed after the academic issues rendered Connecticut ineligible for last year's postseason. They played their junior year knowing it would end when the regular season did. They were on a two-year plan. Giffey did not mean the Wildcats cared little if they won. He meant that because of everything he went through, he thought he cared a little more.
"That's patience," Miami Heat guard Ray Allen said in the corner of the locker room. "Shabazz and them had patience."
Allen starred at Connecticut but never won a title. He roomed with Kevin Ollie, the Huskies head coach of two seasons, who played 13 years in the NBA for 11 organizations. Allen and Ollie were once even part of the same trade.
But Napier does not remind Allen of Ollie. He reminds Allen of Walker, a guard among the most talented in UConn's grand backcourt tradition. "They have so much of the same style of play," Allen said. "They're both so unstoppable out there. They both did what I didn't -- bring a championship to UConn."
Allen spoke to the Huskies on Monday. He told them to respect their opportunity. He told them, according to his recollection, that "The game is bigger than all of us. We just have our moments."
"They had one tonight," he would say later.
Ryan Boatright had a moment. Several, actually. He played defense the way he played all tournament, like a lockdown cornerback on a basketball court. It's hard to remember a better run for a defensive guard in the tournament in recent years.
Ollie had a moment. He seemed so calm on the sideline as the end neared, despite Kentucky's recent history, its late comeback wins over Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin. He led Connecticut, after the postseason probation, to its fourth national title, tied for the fifth most in the history of college basketball. He won a championship in his first NCAA tournament as a head coach.
Napier had a moment that stood above all others. Kentucky had trimmed Connecticut's advantage to 48-47 behind an 8-0 run, and it all felt so familiar, all these freshmen scoring and dunking and playing like the team that entered the preseason ranked No. 1. Then Napier stepped in for a three-pointer, launched from behind the top of the key. "He impacted the game," said Kentucky coach John Calipari. "Terrific player. He has a swagger about him. He did enough for them to win."
After Napier was named the Final Four's most outstanding player, forward Lasan Kromah, who hit the two free throws that sealed the win, conducted interviews with the championship trophy in his lap. He wondered if he might be able to take it back to the hotel and sleep with it. "If I can, I will!" he promised. Teammates walked around with nets hanging from their necks. They took selfies, group shots -- so many glamour poses.
Ollie and Napier boarded a golf cart headed toward their news conference. Ollie sat in front, Napier behind, a pair of Connecticut guards who led Connecticut back to a national title. Here they were, the coach who found stability and the guard who had exuded it.