THE CASE FOR A Soft Side

Shabazz Napier had to connect with his team for the Huskies to break through
April 07, 2014

SHABAZZ NAPIER is from Boston, but he prefers to be more specific: Roxbury is the rough-and-tumble neighborhood that shaped him. It was there that he learned basketball on concrete courts and in youth leagues where coaches would throw box-and-one defenses at him when he was only nine. It was there that his mother, Carmen Velasquez, raised three children on her own, struggling to keep the lights on at times and inspiring her youngest to call her Superwoman. It was there, says Napier, that he was "raised to be tough."

Seventh-seeded UConn is the most surprising team in the Final Four, however, because its 6'1" senior point guard has softened up. Napier was a headstrong freshman on the Huskies' 2011 championship team, unafraid to bark even at star guard Kemba Walker, but when he succeeded Walker as a sophomore, he was not ready to lead. Napier butted heads with 6-foot freshman Ryan Boatright as they tried to share playmaking duties, and isolated himself when he got frustrated. "He'd have his days where he just wouldn't talk to anybody," says senior forward Tyler Olander. "Nobody knew why."

Napier considered leaving Storrs after 2011--12, when coach Jim Calhoun handed the reins to Kevin Ollie and UConn learned it would be banned from the postseason the next season for failing to meet NCAA academic standards. Instead, Napier stuck around and led the Huskies to a 20--10 finish. He began to connect with his teammates—to "give away his gift," as Ollie says—feeding passes to struggling shooters, inviting freshmen to tag along with him to workouts or to Applebee's. Every gesture grew in significance as Napier blossomed into this season's American Athletic Conference player of the year, leading UConn in points, assists, rebounds, steals and, especially, clutch shots. "They follow him anyplace," says Calhoun, now an athletic department adviser. "If he said, 'Run off the court,' they would've done that."

Yet on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, one of Napier's requests went unfulfilled. After scoring a game-high 25 points in a 60--54 upset of Michigan State—then clutching the East Regional trophy while lip-syncing a few bars of "New York, New York"—Napier found Velasquez on the edge of the court. The two embraced. "Don't cry," Napier pleaded. But it was already too late, even for Superwoman.

PHOTOADAM HUNGER/USA TODAY SPORTS'BAZZ FISHING The irrepressible Napier (in blue) is leading the tournament in did-he-really-just-hit-that? baskets.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)