Column: Shabazz Napier: The man who makes the Huskies go
Published: Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, December 4, 2013 21:12
There’s no such thing as an early season All-America team, but if there were, it’d be impossible to keep UConn’s Shabazz Napier off the list.
In the latest exhibit of Napier single-handedly preserving the Huskies’ undefeated record, the senior point guard went for 26 points on 9 of 15 shooting, including the game-winning buzzer beater, to lead No. 12 UConn to a 65-64 win over No. 15 Florida Monday night at Gampel Pavilion.
For a guy who contemplated leaving the program after the Huskies received a postseason ban two years ago, only to then flirt with the NBA during this past offseason, it’s starting to make more and more sense as to why Napier ultimately chose to ride it out in Storrs and finish out what is turning into a legendary career.
The reason? UConn (8-0) has something special brewing. And Napier, who is undoubtedly an All-American at the moment and averaging 16.4 points, 5.6 assists, and 7.3 rebounds per contest, is the driving force behind it all.
With around 35 seconds left and UConn trailing by three, Napier confidently nailed a 23-footer from the left wing—he also drew a foul in the process, swishing the free throw after a timeout and completing the rare four-point play. The Huskies led by one at that point.
After the Gators responded with a lay-up by Michael Frazier II, putting them up 1, it was time for Napier to show off the clutch gene once again.
It wasn’t your average storybook ending, however. UConn coach Kevin Ollie called for a ball-screen on Napier’s man, which prompted Florida to double him in hopes of an effective trap. Napier split the double (he might have double-dribbled in the process, but there was no whistle) before throwing up a rushed desperation heave toward the rim. Amazingly, the ball ricocheted off the backboard, deflected off DeAndre Daniel’s hands, and landed back in the hands of Napier with a lone tick on the clock remaining. He buried the jumper from the free-throw line, causing the home crowd to go wild and the Florida five to look around in disbelief.
So far this year, Napier’s heroic performances have the UConn faithful thinking back to 2011, when another Husky point guard, Kemba Walker, opened the season by putting his teammates on his back and giving the poll voters no choice but to shoot them up the national rankings. Napier’s two best games have taken place under the brightest of lights: a 27-point masterpiece against Indiana at Madison Square Garden to win the 2K Sports Classic, and now another brilliant showing against a dangerous Florida squad.
UConn has beaten Maryland, Boston College, Indiana, and Florida by a combined five points. They have flaws, including a frail front-court and an inconsistent presence to complement Napier in the scoring column, but the battle-tested Huskies will only benefit from these classic finishes when March rolls around.
It’s fascinating to imagine where UConn would be without Shabazz Napier leading the way. Lucky for them, they don’t have to think about that until the offseason. Napier wanted to call Storrs home for a few more years, and that’s all that matters. That, and the fact that he’s playing like a first-team All American.
Florida’s Casey Prather (led the Gators with 19 points) drew the assignment of Napier on UConn’s final possession. Once Napier split the double-team, Prather took off toward the rim to try and grab the loose ball—the decision left Shabazz wide-open at the free-throw line for the game winner. It’s not bad defense at all on Prather’s part, but it would have been Scottie Wilbekin guarding Napier instead had the point guard not gotten hurt with a little over a minute left. Who knows if Wilbekin would’ve boxed out his man rather than sprinting to the paint? He certainly has a knack for textbook box-outs, as DeAndre Daniels found out in the first half. It could’ve been an entirely different outcome.
UConn, who entered the week ranked No. 7 nationally in 3-point shooting percentage, once again had a major advantage from behind the arc. The Huskies outscored the Gators by 24 points on threes, as UConn went 11-24 (Napier was 5-8, and Niels Giffey, Daniels, and Ryan Boatright hit two each) while Florida shot just 3-9 from deep.
Florida’s space eater, 6-foot-9, 240-pound Patric Young, had his best game of the year (17 points, seven rebounds, only two fouls). Young was able to stay out of foul trouble, played a season-high 33 minutes and showed off his strong arsenal of post-moves that gave the UConn big-men fits all evening. This is what the Gators need from their senior center on a more consistent basis.