We just concluded a November that was one of the most entertaining, storyline-rich opening months to a college basketball season in many years. December is off to a pretty good start, too.
On the heels of a surprising Sunday in which four top-25 teams lost and three National Player of the Year candidates endured rare difficulty, No. 12 Connecticut and No. 15 Florida played a game in Storrs, Conn., on Monday that will likely rank as one of the best of the season -- even at year’s end. The Huskies prevailed, 65-64, on a buzzer-beating jump shot by Shabazz Napier that capped a 26-point evening for the senior guard and called to mind the late heroics of a certain previous Huskies playmaker.
While Napier is not to be confused with Kemba Walker just yet -- for that he’ll have to have moments like this a few months from now -- his play on Monday and certainly his final shot recalled the kind of heroics Walker delivered while almost single-handedly carrying the Huskies on an unforgettable 11-game winning streak that included both the Big East and NCAA titles in 2011.
It was certainly the signature moment of Napier’s career, and it came one game after he scored a paltry four points in a win over Loyola-Maryland. But the winning shot was only the last in a string of key plays he made against Florida. Most notable was a four-point play while hurting his ankle with 33.5 seconds remaining that wiped out the Gators’ three-point lead and put UConn in front by one.
Florida came down court without calling a timeout and got a layup from Michael Frazier II to regain the lead at 64-63, only then taking a timeout. Napier took the inbounds pass and dribbled down the clock, nearly losing the ball at one point before recovering to shoot a 17-footer that missed badly. But DeAndre Daniels alertly tapped the ball back out toward the free-throw line where Napier was waiting with his feet set, releasing the shot with just 0.2 seconds left over the outstretched arm of defender Casey Prather. After the ball went through the net, Napier sprinted off the Gampel Pavilion court with his delirious teammates in pursuit.
It was the kind of joyous moment that has been in short supply around Storrs in recent years. After the team won the 2011 NCAA title, with a freshman Napier playing a key role, the Huskies endured a 20-14 season in 2012, after which they were banned from the 2013 tournament because of a low APR and saw Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retire in September.
Successor Kevin Ollie guided them to a 20-10 record last season that included an upset win over Michigan State and five overtime victories but no postseason because of the ban. UConn announced its return to national status by winning last month’s 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden with a one-point triumph over Indiana in the final. Monday’s similarly narrow win came despite being outrebounded and outshot, but the Huskies made up for their disadvantage in athleticism against UF by sinking 11 three-pointers and only committing 11 turnovers in its first game this year against a ranked opponent.
Florida is becoming quite familiar with those types of matchups, having already lost at No. 20 Wisconsin back on Nov. 12, a result overshadowed by the Kentucky-Michigan State and Duke-Kansas showdowns in Chicago on the same night. The Gators’ next two games are also against top 25 foes: first, No. 6 Kansas comes to Gainesville on Dec. 10, then they match up with No. 16 Memphis at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 17.
Perhaps by then Florida will have more depth than it did against the Huskies. Only eight players saw action, two of whom combined for just eight minutes. The other six -- Will Yeguette, Casey Prather, Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith -- played at least 24 minutes, and after Wilbekin went down with an ankle injury with three minutes to go and didn’t return the Gators were further depleted.
Then there is McDonald’s All-America guard Chris Walker, who has missed the entire season while he tries to become academically eligible. If he is cleared for the second semester he would give Florida a huge injection of talent and provide even further depth. The Huskies will also need more contributors, as Daniels was the only other UConn player in double figures on Monday. Of course, if Napier is truly getting ready to channel Walker, he may not need very much help at all.