Like usual, Shabazz Napier shows he's the key for UConn

By Jon Rothstein | CBS Sports

Peavy (USATSI)
With Shabazz Napier on the floor, the UConn Huskies are a breathtaking offensive team. (USATSI)

NEW YORK -- For a few brief moments on Friday night, Shabazz Napier made the Barclays Center his own personal sanctuary.

UConn's steady senior guard got into Maryland's defense at will, found his teammates for layups, and also hit several of his patented face-up jumpers.

When Napier was on the floor, the Huskies were a breathtaking offensive team that built a comfortable 17-point lead.

When he wasn't, UConn struggled, and that was one of the main reasons why the Huskies were able to only escape Brooklyn with a narrow 78-77 win.

"We made it interesting," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said after the game. "We showed America what we can do but we also showed the bad side."

A main reason why the bad side reared its ugly head was because Napier wasn't on the floor as much during the final ten minutes of the game.

After picking up his fourth foul with 4:48 to play and the Huskies holding a 75-68 lead, Napier went back to the bench but quickly returned to pick up his fifth and final foul with 1:30 to play.

UConn managed to hold on without its star but to achieve the things they hope to achieve this season, the Huskies can't afford to have their most indispensable player on the bench in crunch time.

"You saw our potential tonight," said Napier, who finished with 18 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in 33 minutes. "We have so many guys on this team who can score. It makes us versatile and tough to stop."

And that was certainly the case for most of the game.

UConn got a combined 21 points off the bench from Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah along with 10 from Omar Calhoun. Ryan Boatright chipped in nine points and six assists and freshman big man Amida Brimah showed flashes of why he may be the big man this team so desperately needs.

During one sequence in the first half, the 6-11 Brimah blocked two shots then altered another, all while showing a strong ability to run the floor and finish around the rim.

"He impressed me with his passion," Ollie said of Brimah, who finished with five points, three rebounds, and three blocks. "His energy is contagious."

This isn't a vintage UConn teams in terms of future NBA talent.

There isn't a player the caliber of Kemba Walker, Ray Allen, Rudy Gay or Emeka Okafor on UConn's roster. But that doesn't mean the Huskies can't win 20-plus games, challenge Louisville for the American Athletic Conference title and earn a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"They're going to win a lot of games," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said of UConn after the game. "We had no answers for their guards in the first half."

And that will be the same response a lot of coaches will have this season.

The Huskies are deeper than they were last season and have 10 capable players that they can turn to on a nightly basis.

The key will be Napier, a player who deserves to be regularly be mentioned among the elite players in the sport.

"We got a little gassed tonight but we'll figure it out and learn from it," Napier said after the game. "I never felt like things were in doubt."

And he'll feel that way even more if he finishes the next game on the floor instead of on the bench.

 
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