Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Shabazz Picks Mountaineers' Pockets

All the New York City pickpockets working their craft a few blocks away in Times Square were upstaged by a kid from Boston on Wednesday afternoon.

Shabazz Napier stole the show – quite literally – in UConn’s latest how-did-that-happen, Big East tournament win at Madison Square Garden. The sophomore point guard went on a personal 9-0 run – paced by a pair of crafty steals – over an 87-second span late in regulation to tie the game, and his teammates survived without him after he fouled out in overtime.

Jeremy Lamb’s 3-pointer with a little over a minute left in the extra period put the Huskies ahead for good in a 71-67 victory that ousted West Virginia from its final Big East tourney appearance and set up UConn’s third matchup with Syracuse in the past month.

It also essentially clinched a return trip to the NCAA tournament for the defending champions, who are now 20-12 overall.

With less than four minutes left in regulation on Wednesday, however, it appeared the Huskies might not have that chance. The Mountaineers led by nine (63-54) after a Darryl “Truck” Bryant inside bucket with three minutes, 57 seconds left. Napier, however, wasn’t dismayed, and assured his teammates as much at the time.

“I knew we were going to win,” he said. “It’s weird, you just have that instinct, that feeling … I told Alex (Oriakhi), ‘We’re going to win this game.’ I just felt that. When you feel something, you’ve got to go with it.”

Did he ever. Napier canned a 3-pointer, Bryant missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Napier hit a pair of free throws. Then, he swiped a Dominique Rutledge pass near midcourt and cruised in for a finger roll. After a West Virginia timeout, he picked Gary Browne’s pocket off an inbounds pass and again sailed in for a layup, tying the score with 2:10 left.

“One of them, I kind of gambled on,” said Napier. “I just felt like Rutledge was going to be lazy on the pass to Browne, and I just went for it and stole it. And one time, Browne thought I was going to stay with Bryant, and I just came from behind and stole it. Sometimes, you’ve got to take those risks and hope for the best.”

Browne countered with a lane jumper, but UConn got the ball up the floor quickly and Drummond ank a short baseline jumper. Browne turned the tables on Napier by stealing the ball form him near midcourt with 42.2 seconds left, but Andre Drummond blocked a Rutledge shot, Napier missed an 18-footer at the buzzer, and it was on to overtime.

Napier scored the first points of the extra period with a pair of free throws, but wound up picking his fourth and fifth fouls in the span of 24 seconds. Bryant hit a pair of freebies to tie it, but Lamb canned his wing trey to put the Huskies ahead for good.

“I knew we needed a score,” Lamb said, “and in the game (Tuesday), Coach told me to shoot and I didn’t take a shot. Coach was just saying, “I want you shooting the ball.’ So today, they ran a play for me, set great screens, and I was able to get wide open. I had a little time to set my feet and I just shot it with confidence, and thank God it went in.”

It wasn’t over yet, as Ryan Boatright missed three straight free throws within the final 33 seconds. But he finally hit the fourth with 19.2 seconds left, and West Virginia couldn’t score again.

"Boat is always there for us," said Napier. "Go back to the first game he came and knocked down three free throws we needed (to beat) Florida State. That's what he gives you, he gives you a lot of heart no matter what."

The Mountaineers missed all 11 of their field goal attempts in overtime.

“I couldn’t be prouder of our kids,” said coach Jim Calhoun. “I think for a team that obviously has had its ups and downs – no coach, no Boatright, all the various things that have happened to us – those are things that happen and they happen to other teams. But I can only judge my family, my guys, and my guys have come back, won three in a row, and I truly believe that a coach couldn’t be prouder.”

Napier scored 22 of his 26 points in the second half and overtime. Lamb added 22 – 12 in the first 12 minutes of play – and Boatright had 10 off the bench. Napier also had six assists, four turnovers and three blocks (!).

*** UConn-Syracuse. Madison Square Garden. Big East tournament. Doesn’t get much better than that, does it?

Not in recent years, anyway.

The last four times these two powerhouse rivals have met in the Big East tournament, three have been decided in overtime. Among those, of course, was the classic six-overtime battle in 2009 eventually won in the wee hours of the morning by the Orange, 127-117.

More recently, Syracuse has beaten the Huskies twice over the last month, pulling away in the final minutes at the Carrier Dome for an 85-67 win on Feb. 11, then eking out a 71-69 triumph two weeks later in Storrs. Calhoun was on medical leave and not on the sidelines for either game, but he’ll be there for Thursday’s noon quarterfinal-round battle.

“We’re playing, in my opinion – along with Kentucky – the best team in the country (Thursday),” he said after UConn’s 71-67, second-round win over West Virginia.

The old adage says it’s hard for a good team to beat another good team three times in a row. Throw in the fact that the second-ranked Orange are a sure-shot No. 1 NCAA tourney seed with nothing to play for, while the Huskies have momentum, and it’s understandable why Drummond promised: “It’s going to be hard for (Syracuse), I can tell you that now. We’re going to come out with fire.”

Added Lamb: “We’ve just got to come out strong. When we played them at home, we didn’t start off (well). We’ve got to come out as hard as we can.”

*** Despite the victory, UConn had to be concerned about its rebounding – or lack thereof – on Wednesday. The Huskies were outrebounded, 47-31. Worse, they allowed a whopping 26 offensive boards to the Mountaineers.

Strangely, Calhoun wasn’t overly concerned.

“You also remember that six or seven of (the offensive boards) are blocked shots,” he pointed out. “They seemed to get every blocked shot that we had. Not that it’s misleading, but we played defense a little bit different than maybe some other teams, and down the stretch it did help since we blocked two of their layups.”

Calhoun was particularly happy with the defensive play late in the game of Drummond, who blocked Dominique Rutledge’s potential game-winner in the final seconds of regulation.

Drummond also locked down WVU star Kevin Jones late in the game. Jones dominated much of the game from both the inside and outside and finished with 25 points. However, following a pair of free throws with 6:17 left in regulation, he didn’t score again.

“It took me longer than it should have,” Drummond confessed. “I should’ve realized that earlier (and said), ‘Alright, today’s not an offensive game for you, Dre, so you just need to lock up on defense to make sure no one scores.’ It took me until the last 10 minutes to realize, we’re going to lose this game if I don’t lock this kid Jones up. Coach told me, final play, play him hard or he’s going to sub me out and I’m not going to play. So I looked at him and said, ‘Alright, he’s not scoring anymore.’”

Said Calhoun: “With 10 minutes to go, he grew up a little bit and played a hell of a player and did a wonderful job.”

*** The Mountaineers are moving to the Big 12 next season, so Wednesday’s loss was their final appearance in the Big East tournament.

“It’s sad in many, many ways,” said Calhoun. “I’m going to miss them greatly. I’m going to miss Bobby (Huggins, WVU’s coach), going got miss the competitiveness … (Huggins) is heading on his way to being a Hall of Fame coach. I don’t think this league needs to be losing Hall of Fame coaches.”

Said Huggins: “Well, it’s been a good run. We’ve enjoyed it, most of it anyway. I mean, there’s nothing like coming to the Garden to play in the tournament.”

West Virginia finishes 12-15 all-time in Big East tourney games, winning the title in 2010 and reaching the finals twice.

The Big East announced on Wednesday that Temple will officially be joining the conference, for football only in 2012 and all other sports in 2013.

“I always thought Temple would be a great addition, being in Philadelphia,” Calhoun said. “They’ve got a tremendous coach, it’s a great city for basketball.”

Calhoun couldn't resist a chance to needle longtime rival Rick Pitino, who has been publicly campaigning for the Owls to join the Big East for a while now.

"I can't get a word in edgewise with Rick praising Temple," Calhoun quipped. "That's not against Rick. I don't Twitter or Tweet or any of those things. You know what I'm talking about."

*** Lamb has hit double figures in all seven of his career Big East tourney games.

*** UConn has won 13 straight postseason games and seven straight in the Big East tourney, tying Georgetown for third-longest winning streak in the event's history.

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