I know Shabazz Napier is nails because of this: When he hit that fortuitous game-winning shot Monday night to kill Florida's hopes of victory, I wasn't surprised. I was hardly moved; it seemed likely he'd get the ball and he'd make his shot. I mean, don't get me wrong, it will never get old to watch a basketball sink through the hoop as time expires. Chills, almost always.
But there's an effect on emotional reaction caused by preceding expectations. And at this point, Napier's become the go-to guy at the end of the game, a premier clutch player that is now the best in all of college hoops. (We miss you, Michael Snaer.)
In fact, I think it's fair to say Napier's now eclipsed Kemba Walker's legacy in this respect. I'm not interested in doing a rail-by-rail comparison of Napier and Walker's stats, because really, until Napier wins some sort of postseason title without Walker (they were both on the 2010-11 title team), he'll come up short in the eyes of most.
However, I did a data dive on each player's ability to win games in the closing seconds. The result: Napier's the more opportunistic closer. Keeping in mind that Walker only had three seasons in Storrs, and Napier's currently in his fourth.
In combing through these guys' days at UConn, they've missed a batch of potential game-winners, too. That's normal of ballers who have a resume of winning at or near the buzzer, though. Below, I've listed all game-winning or game-tying shots made with 30 seconds or less remaining. If we extended the criterion to something in the final 90 seconds, both guys would have a couple more games listed (for example, Napier hit what wound up being the game-winning 3 to beat Florida State in 2011, but the shot came with 1:08 to go, six possessions before the game ended).
- Dec. 4, 2008: In his freshman season, with one second remaining, Walker sank two free throws to break a 64-64 game and help UConn get a 68-64 win over Buffalo.
- March 12, 2009: Walker makes a layup to send a game into overtime, helping making it legendary in the process. Though UConn would go on to lose to Cuse in six OTs in the Big East tournament, Walker's layup tied the game at 71 at the end of regulation. Walker then missed potential game-winners from 3 at the end of the first and second overtime. Imagine if they'd gone in.
- Jan. 8, 2011: Walker hits a game-winner with five seconds to go in overtime to beat Texas 82-81 on the road.
- Jan. 17, 2011: Walker nails a jump shot with 2.5 seconds remaining to beat Villanova.
- March 10, 2011: The most famous of all. I was there. Walker snapped poor Gary McGhee's knees and ankles and sank a winner that is now seen as the propellant that put UConn on the path to winning it all that season.
- April 2, 2011: Napier's two made free throws in the national semifinals with less than two seconds remaining prove to be the deciding factor, a 56-55 final is determined after Brandon Knight hits a 3 for Kentucky just as time expires.
- Nov. 9, 2012: Napier sinks all four of his free throws in UConn's season debut against Michigan State. The foul shots are the deciding factor in the unranked Huskies' 66-62 upset win, Kevin Ollie's debut as coach, against top-15 Sparty.
- Nov. 16, 2012: You'll notice a few of these games were decided by Napier nailing foul shots. He goes 4 for 4 from the charity stripe to hold off Wake Forest, winning 77-71.
- Nov. 18, 2012: With four seconds to go against Quinnipiac, Napier hits a layup to send the game into overtime. The game needs two overtimes to be settled, and between the extra sessions, Napier goes 6 for 6 from the foul line with less than 20 seconds to go. UConn wins 89-83.
- Feb. 12, 2012: Napier casually buries a 3 from way deep (video at the top of this post) to beat Villanova in overtime, 73-70. The irony: Napier only had six points all night and came off the bench.
- Jan. 31, 2013: Making three of four foul shots in the final 20 seconds, Napier helds UConn stave off Providence, 82-79.
- Nov. 21, 2013: Napier sinks a free throw that helps decide UConn's 72-70 win over Boston College.
- Dec. 2, 2013: Napier gets a lucky second chance thanks to a tip from teammate DeAndre Daniels. The shot from 15 feet falls in and UConn beats Florida 65-64.
If you think it's close, know that two overtime wins -- against West Virginia in 2012 and Cincinnati in February of 2013 -- were basically won by UConn thanks to Napier scoring a combined 20 points down the stretch/in overtime. He's proven to be a guy who welcomes the toughest of moments, and in that respect, he's every bit Kemba Walker's equal.