All-America Shabazz Napier
directed the Huskies to their first tourney win since the 2011 national championship game. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
BUFFALO -- Connecticut assistant Karl Hobbs, a Huskies point guard from 1980-84, sat on a bench in the team's locker room Wednesday and joined the nationwide chorus singing the praises of the senior now manning his former position, Shabazz Napier. He talked about the stretches when Napier is unguardable in practice, the hunger that enables the 6-footer to be UConn's leading rebounder, the trove of big shots and plays he's made over his four years in Storrs. "He's been a monster for us," said Hobbs of the AAC Player of the Year and SI All-America selection. "We're gonna need him to be big tomorrow."
Some 30 hours later, there was Napier, balling his fists as his teammates mobbed him along the baseline, scowling into the stands at no one in particular, having just given UConn a six-point lead over Saint Joseph's on a driving layup on which he was fouled with 1:20 to play in overtime. And a few minutes after that there he was, coolly jogging off the court after an 89-81 victory that was the program's first in the NCAA tournament since the 2011 national championship game in which a then-freshman Napier scored four points off the bench.
But what might be most encouraging for the Huskies is that they were able to prevail in a dogfight of a game in which Napier struggled for most of the night. Smothered for much of the game by DeAndre' Bembry, the Hawks' freshman defensive specialist, Napier scored just five points in the first half as an uncharacteristic number of his shots rimmed out and untold more were unable to be taken. (It should be noted that despite 7-for-22 shooting, Napier did finish with eight rebounds and six assists.) UConn stayed in the game with threes from DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright, with a key offensive rebound and clutch free throws from freshman big man Amida Brimah and by withstanding blow after blow -- Langston Galloway threes, Ronald Roberts put-back dunks -- in a game where separation seemed an impossibility.
The game almost needed no overtime. With the score tied and 2.7 seconds left, UConn executed a flawless full-court inbounds play, a Valpo-esque pass from Niels Giffey to midcourt. Daniels caught the pass and found a streaking Napier along the sideline ready to play the role of Bryce Drew. Napier put up a runner as the clock expired -- and truth be told, might have even had time to plant his feet beforehand -- but it clanked off the right rim to send the game into its extra period, where the Huskies would finally be able to pull away, thanks largely to Napier, who scored nine of his 24 points.
UConn is a capable outside shooting team -- it made 11 of 24 threes against Saint Joseph's, and Napier, Giffey, and Boatright all shot 37% or better this season -- and if the Huskies can put together another quality night from outside, they will have a chance to move on to the second weekend in New York. And if Napier can be a monster, the Huskies will be really scary.
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