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NEW YORK – Shabazz Napier did his best Kemba Walker impersonation the past two nights at Madison Square Garden.
He deserves an Oscar, because his portrayal was dead-on.
Napier made most of the big plays down the stretch in a 72-70 win over Boston College on Thursday, and made nearly all of them in the final minutes of a 59-58 victory against Indiana on Friday, as Connecticut won the 2K Sports Classic.
The 6-foot-1 senior had 20 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists against the Eagles, and followed that up with 27 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists against the Hoosiers. It was eerily reminiscent of what Walker did two seasons ago for UConn, scoring a record 130 points in five games at the Garden, carrying his team to a Big East tournament title.
Walker's name came up very quickly in the Huskies' postgame news conference, but Napier said he wasn't trying to imitate his former teammate -- well, not exactly.
"That's my big brother. I try to emulate everything that he does in a sense, but also put my type of talent, my type of skills on it," Napier said. "I'm not trying to be him -- that's hard shoes to fill. I'm just trying to be Shabazz."
Just being Shabazz has been plenty good so far this season. Just listen to Indiana coach Tom Crean's postgame thoughts.
"Shabazz Napier is just too good," Crean said. "I imagine it would be in the NFL like trying to deal with a great running back -- like Barry Sanders or Adrian Peterson now, something like that -- where a guy can change direction at the drop of a hat, he can play with both hands, both feet, he's explosive to the basket, he's got the pullup (jumper) obviously. He's got the straight pullup, he's got the step-back, he's got the 3. And he's got one of those unteachable abilities to make big shots at really crucial times."
|Shabazz Napier scored 47 total points in the 2K Sports Classic.|
In a back-and-forth championship game, particularly in the second half, every time the Hoosiers seized momentum, the Huskies snatched it right back -- usually thanks to Napier.
Indiana goes on a 6-0 run to take its largest lead, 51-46, with 5 minutes, 19 seconds remaining? UConn answers with a 6-0 spurt of its own, capped by a Napier 3-pointer.
Yogi Ferrell converts a conventional three-point play to put the Hoosiers back in front, 56-55, with 3:07 left? Napier answers with a pullup jumper to make it 57-56.
Evan Gordon knocks down a runner to make it Indiana 58, UConn 57 with 1:53 to go? Napier drives and muscles home a layup 18 seconds later to make it 59-58 Huskies -- what ultimately were the final points of the game.
"He just relishes the moment," Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. "Some people run away from the moments. He embraces them. It's just a special quality to have as a young man."
Napier was asked to explain his knack for stepping up in the clutch. "I just go off the flow," Napier said. "If I think it's time, then I'm gonna go."
This Connecticut team could go a long way if Napier keeps playing this well, and the supporting cast keeps up its end of the bargain. The Huskies, already ranked No. 18, are now 6-0 after an impressive two-day showing in the Big Apple.
"We feel like we played one of the best teams in the country tonight," said Crean, whose squad was 5-0 entering the game.
But Napier will be the catalyst for whatever this team achieves. And the scary thing is, he can play even better. These were far from perfect games. He shot 6-for-17 from the field against Boston College. And against Indiana he had seven turnovers, missed four free throws, and committed an offensive foul in the final minute that could have cost UConn the game.
Afterward, Napier admitted he didn't agree with the referee's call on the charge. But he also said this: "It was a bonehead play for me, I should have passed it."
Make that two more positives that don't show up in a box score: intelligence and humility.
Unfortunately Napier's not going to get the chance to pull a Kemba Walker this coming March, in the Big East tournament. Conference realignment took care of that.
But hey, the NCAA tournament East Regional is being held at Madison Square Garden this season -- an even brighter stage on which to shine.
In the meantime, six games in, Napier -- averaging 16.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists -- has injected himself into the national player of the year race. That's an award Walker never won.
Bet he'd take that over an Oscar any day.