HOUSTON -- Shabazz Napier called it one of the scariest moments of his life when he stepped to the free throw line with an opportunity to put away Kentucky and send Connecticut to the national championship game.
“When I made the second one, I just turned to the bench and was like, ‘I got you guys,’” Napier said. “You guys had my back when I had the turnovers. You guys didn’t look at me down when I made that costly mistake.’”
Napier rewarded his teammates for quickly forgetting his turnover on the previous possession. On the eve of the national title game, the freshman credited the mentors in his life who got him to where he is: Connecticut's key bench player who shares a backcourt with Kemba Walker.
The 6-foot Napier grew up without his father in the Mission Hill projects of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. His mother, Carmen Velasquez, raised three children and did her best to keep her youngest off the streets. “Certain days I would get into the nonsense,” Napier said. “She told me, ‘You have something special. Do something with it.’”
When times got tough for Velasquez, Napier at a young age went to live with Will Blalock, the former Iowa State standout and Detroit Piston. Blalock was 10 years older and willing to let Napier into his home, serving as a mentor to a boy who needed direction.
Napier at that point wasn’t serious about basketball, but Blalock was among those who taught him lessons on the court and made him realize his talent. “He was pretty mean to him in a good way,” recalled UConn forward Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, who also grew up in the Boston area.
“I felt like it was the best time of my life because he was the biggest brother to me in my life,” Napier said of Blalock. “He didn’t have to do what he did. He didn’t have to put me under his wing. He didn’t have to show me the ropes. But he decided to.
“Without him, I wouldn’t be here in this position.”
Napier developed into a tough point guard and defender through high school. At UConn he has come to represent the type of fearless player that coach Jim Calhoun cherishes and awards with early playing time. He is the fourth-leading scorer on the team (7.9) and also is second in assists, with Calhoun pushing him along the way.
“For someone to give me criticism, it’s great for me because they want to see me get better,” Napier said. “For him to give me criticism, it’s like 'Wow, this guy’s a Hall of Fame coach. He doesn’t really have to say anything to me.' When he tells you something, you have to listen.”
After a poor shooting performance in his first college loss on Nov. 27 at Pittsburgh, Napier cried. There to console him was Walker. “He came over to me in the locker room and told me I wasn’t my fault,“ Napier said. “He took me under his wing and has given me great advice.”
Now UConn relies on Napier to take the pressure off Walker. With his ability to handle the point guard position, Napier frees Walker to focus on playing shooting guard -- better utilizing Walker's speed and energy toward becoming the lethal scorer the nation has come to know.
Napier has found many opportunities to score as well, and those crucial points from him have gotten the Huskies to the title game. He scored 10 in the West Regional final against Arizona and again had the ball in his hands late in the national semifinal game against Kentucky.
After missing his first six field goals, Napier drove past Brandon Knight and scored on an acrobatic layup to give UConn a six-point lead with 2:30 left. He then dribbled the ball right into the teeth of the defense in the final minute. Unfortunately for him, he lost the handle trying to split a double-team, giving the Wildcats a chance to win the game.
But it was Napier who corralled the rebound on the other end of the floor. Despite looking into the stands and seeing the frightened look on Velasquez’s face, he sank the game-winning free throws that extended the lead to four with two seconds left.
Now UConn, because of the cool confidence of a freshman, has a chance to win its third national championship in Monday's game against Butler.
“I was so concerned during the timeout that he’d be so concerned about losing the basketball, dribbling into traffic,” Calhoun said. “He looked to me and said, ‘Coach, I’ll make it up next play.’ What am going to say? Of course, he makes two foul shots.
“We can’t have Kemba do everything. Obviously Shabazz as a freshman has been invaluable to us.”