Napier plays hero again for Huskies

March, 23, 2014
3/23/14
2:18
AM ET


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- He started on the left side of the court, right in front of his own bench, and then dribbled toward the hoop, dragging his recently Biofreeze-soothed shin with him.

One step, another and then Shabazz Napier scored on a scooped circus shot of a layup that made the crowd audibly oooh and aah.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
AP Photo/Bill WippertShabazz Napier had 21 of his 25 points in the second half.
Willis Reed meet Kemba Walker? Yes, probably a touch hyperbolic, but we are now directly in the intersection of Napier and March Madness, where even the boldest of overstatements seem insignificant.

Seriously, what else are we supposed to say at this point? Is it time we look for cats in trees to be rescued or old ladies to be helped across the street?

Or maybe we should save the hyperbole for next weekend, when Napier and UConn roll into New York City.

Thanks to Napier’s 25 points, the Huskies, roadkill in conference realignment and banished to the American Athletic Conference and a postseason league tournament in Memphis, Tenn., are going to Madison Square Garden on Friday night for a regional semifinal.

Seventh-seeded UConn got there, by the way, by beating Villanova, a Big East team, 77-65.

There is the sweet taste of revenge, and then there is a Sweet 16 to savor.

"It’s crazy how life works out sometimes," Napier said. "My mother always told me there’s a light at the end of every tunnel. Coach [Kevin] Ollie preaches the same thing. You just have to keep pushing toward that light."

And now, the lights are calling, shining from Broadway and Times Square. One year removed from an academic progress rate postseason ban, one day after the school’s old coach borrowed the spotlight by suggesting he might like to coach somewhere nearby down the road, Ollie and the Huskies got their star turn.

Maybe the hyperbole is a bit much for Napier, but the meaning for UConn can’t be undersold. This was a critical season for the Huskies and Ollie to ensure the program stays relevant.

New unproven coach, new unknown league, same UConn results.

"Going through what we went through last year, it was hurtful and painful to watch," junior guard Ryan Boatright said. "We didn’t have nothing to do with the sanctions. It just feels good to move on."

The Huskies moved on as they’ve moved for most of the season, riding the moving sidewalk that is Napier.

Twenty-one of his 25 points came in a second half when UConn dumped 52 on Villanova. He added five rebounds and three assists. Six of those points and one each of the rebounds and assists came after he hobbled to the bench -- the held breath of the entire state of Connecticut with him -- with what was later termed a deep bruise to his right shin.

Napier and Darrun Hilliard collided with about 4:45 left in the game, with Hilliard’s knee catching Napier’s shin. He finished UConn’s offensive possession, but when the Huskies went back on defense, he crumbled to the ground, crawling for a few seconds on his hands and knees.

Tended to by his athletic trainer, Napier remained on the bench during one timeout before finally joining the huddle at a second. He returned to the game 37 game seconds later and scored on the crazy layup 1:05 after that.

"It’s just adrenaline at that point," he said. "I don’t think I was really feeling anything right then."

[+] EnlargeRyan Boatright
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesRyan Boatright, right, picked up the slack for UConn when Napier picked up two fouls in the first half.
That’s sort of in keeping with how the senior played the entire second half -- unconscious. At one point, he hit back-to-back 3s, one from deep, the other from deeper.

Napier going off? Yeah, that was bound to happen, but where this game went south for Villanova was a full half earlier. Napier was tagged with his second foul with 12:09 in the first half and the Wildcats up 19-9.

There were the Huskies, laid out on a platter.

Instead, there went the Huskies, on an improbable 16-5 run to close the half and lead 25-24 at the break.

It wasn’t officially the end of Villanova’s unexpected successful season, but it might as well have been. The Wildcats, who opened the season with little in the way of expectation, finished 29-5, but it is the end -- fair or not -- that’s not what they will be remembered for.

Villanova slinked out of the postseason twice, really, upset by Seton Hall in the Big East tournament, and done in here by their old league foe, UConn.

"That was probably the second-most important part of the game, him not going on the floor and them making up the difference there," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We had a lead. That was disappointing. In a game like that, you got to take advantage of that, which we didn’t."

UConn’s team effort -- the defensive effort by Terrence Samuel, the 11 stopgap points from Boatright -- those are what Ollie wanted to talk about after the game.

"Everybody talks about we’re not deep, we’re not this, we’re not that," he said. "But we’ve got heart."

The coach has a point. There is a take-a-punch-but-don’t-fall-down resilience among this bunch.

But the Huskies don’t come by that attitude accidentally. It starts at the top of the roster, with Napier. Before he could make his way across the court for a postgame TV interview, his shin was already wrapped in ice. Then, he gimped off into the hallway and into the locker room.

A few minutes later, he walked up and down, trying to figure out where he had to go for the postgame interviews, and after those ended, he finally took a seat in a near corner of the locker room.

"It will hurt tomorrow," he said. "But I don’t care. I’m not thinking about the pain. I’m thinking about just doing what I have to do to keep this season going."

And that’s no exaggeration.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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