Sunday, April 3, 2011

Shabazz Overcomes Low Blow, Shines in Clutch

Shabazz Napier didn’t have much of an impact over the first 37 minutes of Saturday night’s Final Four bout with Kentucky.

He missed his first six shots from the floor and hadn’t scored at all to that point.

But Napier’s fingerprints were all over the final 2 ½ minutes of UConn’s 56-55 victory over the Wildcats. The freshman guard had a big basket, a big rebound, a bad turnover and two big free throws over that span – all after surviving a low blow earlier in the game.

Napier’s two foul shots with two seconds left sealed the victory for UConn. He had grabbed the rebound of a DeAndre Liggins 3-pointer and went to the line with the chance to send the Huskies to Monday night’s national championship game.

“The first thing that was going through my mind was the Syracuse game, when I had the chance to make the free throw to end the game and I missed it,” Napier recalled. “I saw my mom in the stands and said, ‘I’ve got to make this, man.’ After I made it, I was ecstatic, I was happy. I felt like I redeemed myself.”

Napier had picked a good time to hit his first field goal of the night, a nifty driving layup with 2 minutes, 30 seconds left that capped a 6-0 UConn run and gave it a 54-48 lead.

However, with the Huskies clinging to a two-point lead, Napier turned the ball over in the lane.

“I was kind of upset,” Napier said. “I felt like I let my team down, and that’s the worst feeling in the world.”

UK’s Brandon Knight grabbed the loose ball on the floor and called timeout with 16.6 seconds left, setting up a chance for the Wildcats to win the game or send it to overtime. But Liggins missed the 3-pointer, Napier grabbed the rebound and redeemed himself with the two free throws.

The freshman also did a good job much of the night guarding Knight, the Wildcats’ top scorer who shot just 6-for-23. He seemed to frustrate Knight, too, causing the UK freshman to hit Napier in his man region just before a timeout late in the game.

“He said it was accidental,” Napier said. “It was uncalled for. I was trying to get the timeout, and he just swung. I’m like, ‘Just play basketball, man.’ There’s no reason for that. We’re on a big stage, we’re trying to get to the same place, there’s no reason for that.”

A trip to the national championship game is enough to let Napier forgive and forget.
“He just looked at me. He knew he was wrong for it. At the end, I said, ‘Is that intentional?’ He said he didn’t mean it. It’s over with.”

So Tired?

As if winning five games in five days at the Big East tournament or nine games in 19 days to get to the Final Four wasn’t taxing enough, there’s another reason to question how fatigued UConn might be right now.

When the Huskies take the floor on Monday night, it will be their 41st game of the season – most by any team since 1945, when Oregon (30-15) played 45 contests.

On Saturday, UConn and Virginia Commonwealth tied the modern record (since 1948) of most games in a season, which has been done seven other times: Duke in 1986 and last season, UNLV in 1990, Kentucky in 1997, Florida in 2007, and Kansas and Memphis in 2008.

Hilton Heads to Houston

Hilton Armstrong was in the UConn locker room after the game, congratulating various Husky players.

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