Shabazz Napier led the Huskies in points, rebounds and assists in the regular season and seems determined to advance in the NCAA tournament. (Jared Wickerham/Getty)
Many times this year UConn looked to Shabazz Napier to do everything. Maybe it was partly because Shabazz Napier can do everything. But it also was partly because the Huskies' other talented players had a tendency to disappear in games. It was always clear the senior wasn’t going to let his career end without a fight, and his teammates now look like they’re right there with him. Connecticut earned a berth to the Sweet Sixteen after knocking off No. 2 seed Villanova, 77-65.
Napier sat for a good portion of the first half after picking up two early fouls, and he came up gingerly after injuring his right leg with just over five minutes left in the game and UConn leading 56-49. He had to come out of the game briefly, but he came back in to finish the job with a touch over three minutes to play, announcing his return with an acrobatic finish on a layup to put the Huskies up nine. Napier shortly after dished it to Terrence Samuel on a fastbreak for an easy finish.
When he was in the game, he was masterful. He finished with 25 points (along with five rebounds and three assists) on 9-of-13 shooting, hitting deep jumpers and getting to the tin. His resourcefulness showed often, whether it was head-faking to draw a foul or taking advantage of defensive mismatches. It’s nothing new from Napier, the AAC player of the year.
But because Napier was on the bench for so long, other Huskies had to contribute. Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels combined to score 22 points. Bench players Terrence Samuel and Lasan Kromah added 23 more. And defensively, the Huskies were terrific. The team had 11 steals (Kromah had four). Villanova shot just 35.3 percent and turned it over 16 times.
When Napier sat early in the first half, things looked bleak for the Huskies. They fell behind 19-9 after a Darrun Hilliard three, but went on a 16-1 run behind stellar defense to retake the lead. 'Nova finally broke an 11-plus minute field goal drought with a Ryan Arcidiacono three-pointer and found itself trailing 25-24 at the break.
Arcidiacono (18 points, six assists) started the second half the way he finished it – by burying a three – giving the Wildcats the lead. That success could have spoiled him, but the 34 percent three-point shooter hit 3-of-7 threes on the day. Villanova finished 11-for-31 from beyond the arc, missing many late while trying to mount a comeback. The Wildcats settled for too many jumper instead of trying to get to the lane.
The win in the opening round was hard fought, but this win probably means a little bit more for coach Kevin Ollie and for the UConn players who stuck around even when the NCAA hit the Huskies with a postseason ban in 2012-13. Beating a former conference rival that they won't play anymore because of realignment certainly adds even more pleasure. And to earn a trip to New York for their troubles, a place Connecticut is more than familiar with? Well that's even better.
UConn still needs its whole team to get any further, but with Shabazz Napier, the Huskies always have a fighting chance.
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