UConn wins on senior night behind Napier and Giffey
With the 2011 national championship banner hanging overhead, Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and Shabazz Napier, the only players left from UConn's third national championship team, said goodbye to Gampel Pavilion and the 10,167 fans inside.
The three seniors, along with graduate student Lasan Kromah and walk-on Tor Watts, were honored on Senior Night Wednesday before the No. 19 Huskies' 69-63 win over Rutgers.
"I was excited to come out and play," Napier said. "I told the guys, 'Even though it's Senior Day, we have to come out and play the same way. We have to play the game we know how to play.' But it was definitely a special moment."
The Class of 2014 went out in style. Napier scored 26 points, moving within two points of Kemba Walker for seventh on the all-time scoring list, and hit a career-high seven 3-pointers. Giffey made six of his nine shots, four of them from behind the arc for a career-high 16 points. Olander did his part in 13 minutes, adding four points and three rebounds. Kromah struggled offensively - he was 1-for-7 for three points - but the transfer from George Washington added four rebounds, two steals and a block on the defensive end for UConn.
"That's really the perfect end for me playing here in Gampel," Giffey said. "I was really carried by the emotions we had, my mom being here, a lot of my friends being here. I really just felt all the love from the fans and all the support they gave me. That was really moving for me. So it's easy to give that back on the court."
The emotions were obvious, but Napier, who said Saturday after beating Cincinnati that he plays bad when he cries, kept his composure.
"The guys thought I was going to be the first to cry," Napier said, "but I told them it's not like last year when I knew that was our last game."
Last year's 20-10 season ended abruptly at Gampel Pavilion - despite an overtime victory over Providence - because of the Huskies' postseason ban, a result of poor academic scores. On March 16, UConn will be announced as one of the 68 participants in the NCAA Tournament, with the Huskies looking for their first tournament victory since the 2011 National Championship Game.
Giffey and Olander addressed the crowd following the win. When they were done, Ollie grabbed the microphone and declared to the fans that come the second week of April, the Huskies would be back at Gampel Pavilion to raise the program's fourth national championship banner.
"Like 68 other teams, we've got a chance, so why not think it?" Ollie said. "Because that's the only way you're going to get a chance, if you think and have faith."
Before the five departing players hang up their sneakers, there is a lot of basketball to play. UConn goes to Louisville Saturday for the regular season finale against the No. 11 Cardinals. After that, the team goes to Memphis for the inaugural American Athletic Conference Tournament. Then, after potentially three games in Tennessee, the NCAA Tournament begins, with the Huskies and 67 other teams fighting to be the last team standing.
"No matter what team you are, if you're the worst team or the best team, feels that way, you want to get to the last game. As long as we continue to work hard and make sure we get in the games and make sure we play the way we're supposed to play, we should be fine."
UConn has an advantage that is shared by only two other teams that will be in the tournament field. Like Kentucky and Louisville, UConn has players with championship experience.
Napier, Giffey and Olander got their experience the hard way. In 2011, the Huskies became the only team to win a conference tournament by winning five games in five days. After that, UConn was a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament and won the title. Now, they are trying to use the lessons they learned during that run to prepare the Huskies for what lies ahead.
"It's an extraordinary task to do what we did," Olander said. "That's unbelievable, a once in a lifetime type of thing. Hopefully we can make it twice. So you just need to keep it in perspective, go night by night. It's a bunch of small pictures that make a big picture; just got to show them the frame of each little picture, and at the end, hopefully we can all lift that big prize."
Ollie's comment may have gotten a positive rise out of the fans, but for the players, it was no surprise. It did not faze them. When the expectation is to win the national championship, the way to behave is to reinforce the idea that you are capable of doing so.
"That's how he felt," Napier said. "That's definitely how he felt. I'm not going to shy away from it. I'm going to back him up. I believe we can definitely be (national champions), but it's one thing to say it, and we have to go out and do it."
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