Napier nails yet another winning shot, establishing his UConn legacy
The UConn guard is getting compared more and more to Kemba Walker. But let him stand on his own. The senior point guard is writing his own history.
STORRS, Conn. -- Get me the hell out of here.
That's what's basically going through Shabazz Napier's head immediately after he hits the latest game-winning shot of his career, the buzzer-beater that keeps this 12th-ranked Connecticut team undefeated, now 8-0 and continuing to remain nationally relevant in the post-Jim Calhoun epoch.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie said the following sequence reminded him of the Rip Hamilton classic that earned the Huskies a Sweet 16 victory in 1998.
"Once again, we showed our resolve," Ollie said. "I wouldn't trade our heart for anybody."
Clock draining, trailing 64-63 on his home floor to No. 15 Florida, Napier is inevitably trapped by behemoths Patric Young and Casey Prather. Napier slips through -- is it a double dribble? Perhaps Prather punched it free first -- and tosses up a miserable desperation attempt from 20 feet. The shot lands way left, failing to touch rim, and Huskies junior forward DeAndre Daniels tries to corral the all-glass rebound for a put-back.
"I was trying to make a play out of nothing," Napier said. "I don't think I would've been able to live with that miss that I took. It was terrible."
The angle of the carom is too harsh for Daniels to snare. Instead, the ball serendipitously flicks off his fingers and back into the hands of Napier, now all alone at the foul line, 0.9 on the clock.
"I've missed so many shots in my life, but I learn from my failures, and that's what's making me so succesful," Napier said. "I was in the right spot at the right time. If it wasn't for DeAndre tipping the ball, the game would be over."
Shot goes up and cushions itself into the net. 65-64 UConn, and Napier just won the 80th game of his collegiate career on a tweaked ankle.
Napier's backward scoot turns into a forward jog, and now he's looking down, casually leaving the floor like he just sank a meaningless shot before mother's call for dinner. Behind him, his maniacal teammates are on patrol. They catch up, hoot a few times to the student section above, then dip into the tunnel and through the doors, to the bowels of Gampel Pavilion. A few seconds later, Napier and his teammates emerge, coming out to rousing applause like a slugger who just smashed a grand slam to give his team the lead.
The kid isn't trying to make a grand exit or dramatic moment. Truth is, Shabazz Napier is claustrophobic. Once he hits the shot, he fears the dog pile from teammates and possible court-storm from fellow students, who at this point are at full throat and cherry in the face. So, adios.
"That ain't for me," Napier said. "I'd rather run to the locker room, where I know I'm safe."
How about that. The guy in the building most comfortable when surrounded by a bowl of people, who wants the ball in his hands with seconds evaporating and pressure compressing like a vise: Just give him a little space, everybody.
And at this point in his career, now a senior, on the heels of what he did to Florida Monday night, he's earned the room to do whatever he wants. Napier has established himself as a UConn basketball hero. Tempting as it may be, and surely we're in for four more months of this, know it's not totally mandatory/necessary to invoke the name "Kemba" when doling out praise to Shabazz.
"I'm gratified, but Kemba Walker, those are some big shoes to fill," Napier said. "I've gotta win a national championship. Kemba did a lot of things that guys will never do. He almost had a thousand (points) in one year. I'm just out here trying to play my basketball game. I learned a lot from him, I try to implement it in my game, but I'm trying to be myself."
The Huskies legend, who Napier refers to as his "big brother," is undoubtedly an easy comparison. Both point guards with crazy handle, steel guts and a capacity to hit the toughest of shots in the tightest of moments. Walker's heroics are still vivid in our minds, and in fact the two shared a season together, that 2010-11 campaign that ended with a Huskies championship, when Napier was a freshman and Walker was a junior.
But here in his fourth and final season on campus, Napier is cementing a saga for himself. They love their Huskies up here in Storrs, and at this point -- almost no matter what awaits UConn this year -- I think it's safe to say Napier has earned himself a plaque adorned high against the cement walls inside Gampel Pavilion.
Did he think the shot was going in?
"Of course," Napier said. "Honestly, I'm not being cocky, but I just believe every shot I take should go in. I work so hard on my craft day in and day out, so I believe every shot I take: it has to go in. I'm telling it to go in."
Florida was without its best defender, Scottie Wilbekin, on the play. The senior was forced out of the game with 3:01 left after hurting his right ankle.
The game-winner wasn't the only huge shot Napier hit Monday night. He had 26 (on 9-of-15 shooting), thanks in part to his 3-pointer that tied the game at 62 -- while getting fouled with 33.5 seconds to go . That one completely detonated the capacity crowd under the ivory Gampel roof. It was then when he landed awkwardly on his left foot. He went on to hit the free throw to give UConn the lead.
"Some players, taking those shots, you'd call them 'bad shots' but he's really efficient at knocking them down," Young said.
The close-call W becomes the fourth game this season the Huskies have escaped by winning with one or two points separating them from opponent at the end of the game. It's premature, but the success and clutch nature of this team is provoking parallel images to the 2010-11 Huskies, who started 10-0. Only that team's close wins came later in the year.
"He's done a 360 since I first got here," Boatright said. "He's really embracing the moment, and me knowing Shabazz, he knew going into this year it was all or nothing. He worked extremely hard and it's paying off for him."
In the biggest of ways. The Huskies were resilient but not exactly stellar against the Gators. The only other player with significant impact was Daniels (14 points, seven rebounds).
"You look on this stat sheet, I don't know how we do it," Ollie said.
Shabazz Napier is how.
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