Things didn't look great for Connecticut. Villanova had burst out to a 19-9 lead, Shabazz Napier had just picked up his second foul, and the Wildcats were hitting everything. The Huskies were at danger of getting run out of the gym.
Then freshman Terrence Samuel came in and hit two free throws and a jumper. Lasan Kromah scored a couple baskets. Ryan Boatright made a layup.
UConn just needed to stay in the game until Napier returned in the second half -- and once he did, the Huskies took over.
Despite missing more than 12 minutes in the first half and suffering a bruised shin late in the game, Napier finished with 25 points and three assists as Connecticut pulled away from Villanova, 77-65.
Napier was phenomenal after a subpar first half. He made four 3-pointers, including one from about 27 feet, one off a full-speed pull-up jumper, and one over the outstretched hand of Daniel Ochefu. He was unstoppable, and his layup and fast-break assist after returning from the shin injury iced the game for Connecticut.
But it wasn't just Napier. Boatright handled the ball effectively in Napier's absence, constantly threatening the Villanova defense. Kromah and Samuel came off the bench to score in double-figures and play solid defense. Moreover, Samuel provided an extra ball-handler when Napier was out of the game.
Villanova came in as one of the most dangerous perimeter teams in the country, but Connecticut stifled the Wildcats and forced them into long offensive droughts. The Huskies also caused 16 turnovers, leading to fast-break and transition points for the Huskies. Villanova couldn't get anything going to the basket, settling for 31 3-point attempts and making only seven 2-point baskets the entire game.
The Wildcats were too reliant on the 3-point shot, and Connecticut made them pay when the Wildcats went cold.
The adage of "guards win in March" has gone away slightly in recent years, but Connecticut is bringing it back. With Napier leading the charge, and Boatright, Kromah and Samuel providing a supporting cast in the backcourt, UConn is as well-equipped as anyone to be a dangerous team next weekend. Even the two most prolific frontcourt players, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey, are mostly perimeter players.
Napier isn't Kemba Walker, but more performances like this one could lead to an even longer stay in the NCAA Tournament for the Huskies. Plus, Napier has played in a Final Four and a championship game; he knows what it takes to cut down the nets.
A matchup next weekend against a Georges Niang-less Iowa State team or a frontcourt-dominated North Carolina team is winnable -- and then they will take their chances against Michigan State or Virginia (or Memphis). Virginia will give the Huskies open shots from the perimeter, and Michigan State has looked vulnerable during the opening weekend.
Moreover, Madison Square Garden used to essentially be Connecticut's second home when the Huskies were in the Big East. They will likely have the lion's share of the crowd support in New York.
Connecticut wouldn't be favored in an Elite Eight game against either team, but it's getting to be impossible to doubt Napier -- and the rest of his backcourt mates.