Men's Basketball: UConn takes on St. Joseph's in first tournament game since 2012
Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier (13) looks for a way around Louisville guard Terry Rozier (0) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the finals of the American Athletic Conference men's tournament Saturday, March 15, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. AP
BUFFALO - Three years ago, Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander were freshman on a UConn team that won the national championship.
Since then, they their NCAA Tournament experiences have been disappointing. In 2012, a team that Ryan Boatright described as "probably the best talented team in the country" faded out in the Round of 64 as a No. 9 seed. The next year, they were barred from entering the tournament as a punishment for academic issues from before they arrived at UConn.
Now seniors, Napier, Giffey and Olander will lead the Huskies into their first NCAA Tournament game since March 15, 2012, when the Huskies, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, take on the No. 10 seed, St. Joseph's, in the Round of 64 at First Niagara Center Thursday night, a 6:55 tip off on TBS.
"It's exciting to actually be back here," Napier said. "It's exciting to be with...my teammates. I can tell you, from what Giff's been telling me about, he's just happy to be here as well. So it's exciting."
Experience has been a strong suit of UConn's all season. However, tournament experience is not in abundance.
The three seniors all have seven NCAA Tournament games under their belts, but they have six starts between them - five of which belong to Olander. Daniels and Boatright each played two minutes in the 2012 loss against Iowa State. No one else on the team has tournament experience.
"The biggest thing I try to tell these guys is don't put any pressure on yourself," Napier said. "You're not going to play as well as you need to play if you put pressure on yourself. That's the biggest thing, you know? If you're playing freely with little boundaries, you're fine."
Napier, the Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference, continued his climb up the all-time lists at UConn during last week's AAC Championship, where UConn fell to Louisville in the Final. He is now fifth in scoring with 1,832 points and is tied for third in assists with 619. One assist against St. Joseph's would move out of the tie with his head coach.
"He can have it," Kevin Ollie said. "I want him to be the first player in UConn history to have two national championships. That would be a great honor, and the first step starts tomorrow."
That first step comes against one of the shock conference tournament champions. The Hawks are one of six Atlantic-10 teams in the field after defeating Virginia Commonwealth in the championship game at the Barclays Center this past weekend.
This will be the seventh meeting between UConn and St. Joseph's. The Huskies are 4-2 all time, but the two schools have not met since 1989.
"St. Joe's is a great team, a great opportunity for us," Ollie said. "I think for us not playing last year and us watching Selection Sunday and not seeing UConn going in, it just was fuel for the fire.
"I think they're not taking anything for granted because they know a special moment can be taken away from them. They want to thrive, and they want to make sure they're on top of their game."
Leading the way for the Hawks is senior Langston Galloway. Should the Hawks get on a run during the tournament, the first team all-conference selection, who ranks third in school history with 1,966 points, has a chance to catch St. Joseph's legend Jameer Nelson for the all-time scoring record of 2,094.
Galloway is far from St. Joseph's only weapon. The Hawks start three all-conference selections as well as the Co-Player of the Year in the A-10, DeAndre' Bembry.
"Collectively, they're a tough group defensively," Napier said. "(Bembry's) definitely one of them guys that's a glue guy that gets everybody together. It's kind of crazy as he's a freshman. He sticks out there. For him to be that big and that quick, he's just a great three spot for them. He gets going. He's a big X-factor."
Twice in the past four games, UConn has been knocked around by Louisville, one of the early favorites to win the national championship. After a 33-point loss on March 8, the Huskies were beat up in the first half last Saturday and couldn't overcome a 14-point deficit, losing by 10 in Memphis. Boatright said the improved second half Saturday helped the Huskies, who say they are prepared for whatever lies ahead.
"We know how good we can be," Boatright said. "We know that we've got veteran leaders on and off the floor. We've been practicing well. And we've just getting mentally and physically ready to go to war. We know that they're not going to go down easy. It's going to be a tough game, but we're ready to take the challenge."
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