Shabazz Napier led UConn with 26 points in its overtime win over West Virginia. (REUTERS/Mike Segar)
NEW YORK -- For the second straight year, UConn is providing the bulk of the entertainment at the Big East tournament. You know last year's show by heart. And in case you forgot, Kemba Walker sent his mom, Andrea, to Madison Square Garden to sit in the Huskies' family section wearing his Final Four jersey and cheer on the kids he led to the 2011 national championship. Andrea insisted that this year's team is special, too. "Well," she said, "they're special minus one."
It's glaringly obvious that UConn is minus her son -- this has been a trying, 20-12 season in which they needed Wednesday's 71-67, overtime win over West Virginia just to seal an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament -- and it's debatable whether this team can be special. The entertainment they're serving up, this time around, has a different feel. If the 2011 Big East tourney was Kemba Magic, 2012 is Shabazz Madness, a roller-coaster ride that offers no certainty of a safe ending.
The box score from Wednesday's win, which moves the ninth-seeded Huskies on to face top-seeded Syracuse in Thursday's quarterfinals, suggests that sophomore point guard Shabazz Napier was the star: He played nearly 40 minutes, and had team highs in points (26) and assists (6), along with four rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Those were big numbers on a big stage. But what's hard to overlook -- impossible to overlook, really -- is the fact that Napier was unavailable for the final 2:35 of overtime due to a lapse in judgment.
To recap: With three minutes left in OT, and UConn up 67-65, Napier committed a charging foul by running over Mountaineers guard Truck Bryant on a fastbreak -- and then on the possession that immediately followed, Napier bumped Bryant as he drove toward the basket. Let's allow Napier to explain what was running through his head at that crucial moment, with his team's spot in the NCAA tournament potentially on the line:
"I didn't know what was going on. I didn't know I had four fouls, and then when I heard a lot of West Virginia fans going crazy, then it kind of hit me -- 'Wow, I got my fifth foul.' I didn't know that at all."
That is the de facto leader of the 2012 UConn Huskies. When teammate Jeremy Lamb ran off a devastating Alex Oriakhi screen to hit the game-clinching three with 1:05 left in OT, Napier was on the bench, relegated to cheerleading. His teammates take the bad with the good, though, for a couple of reasons. One, it's not as if the Huskies, who've struggled with chemistry all season, have a better leadership option. Two, they know they wouldn't have had a shot at beating West Virginia, and would be on a bus back to Storrs now, had Napier not delivered stretches of brilliance that balanced out his bone-headedness.
The best one came when they needed him most, down 63-54 with 3:57 left in regulation. The situation was dire. Napier started the climb back by drilling a three to cut it to six, then drew a foul with 2:48 left and hit both free throws to cut it to four. The Mountaineers still seemed to have the game under control -- until, on back-to-back possessions, Napier picked the pocket of Dominique Rutledge and raced off for a transition layup, then did the same thing to Gary Browne with 2:08 left, tying the game at 63-63. Napier, who'd suffered a bloody nose late in the second half and was playing with cotton in his nostrils, almost singlehandedly willed UConn back into the game.
And then, staying true to Shabazz Madness, he nearly gave the game away, letting Browne strip him of the ball, wrestle it away on the floor and call timeout with 43 seconds left. After a missed Jabarie Hinds layup, the ball went back into who else but Napier's hands for the final shot, with the score tied 65-65. On a set play, the often-too-passive Lamb is the Huskies' man -- as long as coach Jim Calhoun reminds him, "Your job is to shoot the basketball," as the coach did in an overtime huddle -- but freelance situations that require penetration tend to fall on Napier.
In his chance for a Kemba moment at the Garden, what did he do? He dribbled out the clock with Browne on him, never made a move toward the lane, and pulled up for a three with a hand in his face. It didn't look good out of Napier's hand, and it clanged off the front rim, sending the game to OT. "I didn't want it to end that bad, [because] I missed," Napier would later joke. "I should have taken it to the rack and gotten a better shot."
There were few other laments from the Huskies, because they accomplished the most basic goal of March, which is to survive. They've now won 13 straight postseason tournament games, and they're treating all their regular season struggles -- their 8-10 finish in the Big East, which featured just one quality win, at Notre Dame on Jan. 14 -- as if they're unrelated to this stretch at the Garden. "Look around," Calhoun told them all before yesterday's win over DePaul, and wrote the number 1 on the locker-room whiteboard. "New season. The old one is done."
They have yet to lose since Calhoun rejoined the team on March 3, following an eight-game hiatus due to a back injury and subsequent surgery. Napier said having Calhoun back matters greatly ("He's steering the boat") and Calhoun said he's seen a changed Napier since he returned ("He's a different player than he was three weeks ago"). Napier has changed for the better, because there were games on the Big East schedule where he was just plain bad, but how far can he lead these Huskies? They're still more maddening than they are magical, and it's bound to catch up with them soon.