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Shabazz Napier enjoying success in senior season

Sports Editor

Published: Monday, February 17, 2014

Updated: Monday, February 17, 2014 21:02

Shabazz 1

JESS CONDON/The Daily Campus

Shabazz Napier lays the ball in against Memphis at the XL Center in Hartford Saturday. The senior guard has excelled in clutch situations over the past few seasons and been a catalyst for the Huskies.

UConn may have finished 20-10 during the 2012-13 season, but the Huskies could have just as easily finished 15-15, a far less satisfying record. Seven games went to overtime during the 2012-13 season, a school record. Five times out of the seven, UConn emerged with the win, mainly because overtime is Shabazz Napier time.

In just under 40 minutes on the floor during overtime last season, Napier scored 55 points.

“You guys know I love overtime,” Napier told the media Saturday after scoring a career-high 34 points – six in overtime – to lead UConn to an 86-81 win over Memphis.

Following up on a promise he made to his mother, Carmen Velasquez, Napier – who has the outline of a dollar sign tattooed on his chest – decided that the NBA could wait after a big junior season.

“I told my mom, I promised her that I’d get my degree,” said Napier, who is majoring in sociology. “Coming from a single-parent home, one thing that my mom always told me was that you could play basketball until you’re 40, but one thing that people could never take away from you is the education, and I promised her that I’d grab my degree. That was the biggest thing–and the only thing–that pushed me to come back to school.”

Velasquez is not difficult to find at UConn games; she always has on her son’s No. 13 jersey from the 2011 Final Four and is more often than not standing and trying to ignite the crowd, much like Shabazz does on the court. Next to the students, she is the most energetic fan in the building, and on the road she is always UConn’s biggest fan.

“To see her in the stands,” Napier said, “to see her out there cheering for me, to see that smile on her face, it puts so much wonder in my heart because the least I can do is put my mom in the right place to better her life because she did the same thing for my life for God knows how many years, and she continues to do so. My mother’s my world. If she told me to stop playing basketball today, I might stop.”

If Velasquez had asked him to stop playing before this year, UConn might not be 20-5, and the nation would have one less Wooden Award candidate on its hands.

UConn has six wins by less than 10 points – three of them by one point. The last time the Huskies won three games by one point was the 2003-04 season, a year that ended with a national championship.

That team was deep, featuring stars like Emeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva, Denham Brown and Rashad Anderson, to name a few. This year, there is talent, but Napier is the standout guy that everyone will talk about.

The 6-foot-1-inch Napier made sure of that on Dec. 2 against Florida. UConn needed a statement game against an elite team, and the Huskies went back and forth with the Gators for 39 minutes and 42.3 seconds, until Michael Frazier II put Florida ahead on a layup with 17.7 seconds on the clock.

At that point, 10,167 fans inside Gampel Pavilion, a contingent of NBA scouts from 20 NBA teams, a group of journalists and photographers, Jim Calhoun and an entire TV audience knew Napier would have the last word.

Coach Billy Donovan and the Gators knew it, which is why they tried to trap him. But Napier dribbled through three players, almost lost the ball, got it back and threw up a shot with less than three seconds left.

It hit the backboard, but it was the greatest miss of Napier’s career, because it went right into the hands of teammate DeAndre Daniels, who tipped it out, giving Napier one last chance to win the game. Napier pulled up from just beyond the foul line, and the ball left his hands with 0.3 seconds on the clock.

No one heard the ball hit the ground, but when it did, the score was 65-64 and Napier was on his way to the locker room, leading his triumphant team.

He got called back out to the floor for a curtain call that night, and finally left to chants of “M-V-P! M-V-P!”

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Napier at the end of games,” Donovan said. “He’s a big shot-making guy.”

Napier’s ankle was wrapped extra tight that night, and after aggravating it when he was fouled on a game-tying 3-pointer with 34 seconds left, Gampel fell silent. The captain hopped back to his feet and continued fighting, eventually hitting the winning shot.

“He’s got so much heart,” Ollie said. “I love the kid to death. One of the big time players to ever put this jersey on and walk on the court at Gampel.”

Napier grew up dreaming of being Superman, his favorite superhero. At times in his first three years, it looked like he was trying to be Superman. This season has not been much different; he has had to take off the glasses, rip off the red shirt and put on the cape on many occasions.

That is nothing Napier cannot handle.

“The best guard in America,” as head coach Kevin Ollie described him after beating Memphis, says he just wants to be another student on campus, and he demonstrates that most prominently at Gampel Pavilion and Morrone Stadium. When he is not on the court, he is either finding a cardboard big head of a women’s basketball player to hold up in the front row of the student section or running around like a maniac at a soccer game.

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