Napier carries UConn to thrilling OT win over Memphis
HARTFORD – The scene was very familiar.
Similar to the end of the Florida game on Dec. 2 when he beat the Gators at the buzzer, Shabazz Napier had the ball in his hands Saturday with the clock winding down against Memphis.
Napier held his dribble and waited until two seconds remained before hoisting a three-pointer from the right elbow. The arc was high, the shot was on line and the ball looked for sure it was going in.
This time, though, it didn’t for Napier. The ball rolled twice around the rim and it was halfway down before spinning out, setting up overtime between two teams that appear to be the long-term class of the American Athletic Conference.
Did the miss bother Napier heading into the extra session?
“Nope,” the senior captain said. “You guys know I love overtime.”
He was right.
Napier shook off the miss and scored six of his career-high 34 points in overtime as the 24th-ranked Huskies outlasted No. 20 Memphis, 86-81, before a lively sellout of 16,294 at the XL Center.
“I thought it was going in,” said Napier, who added five rebounds, four assists and four steals. “I got open space and it was just one of those shots that I call ‘toilet flush.’ It didn’t go in, it just clogged up and came back out. It happens.
“I had to move on. For us, this was a must win.”
The Tigers (19-6, 8-3 AAC) shot 54.9 percent and out-rebounded UConn, 38-28, but the Huskies held onto the ball (only one turnover in the second half/overtime), forced 18 turnovers defensively and made 29 free throws compared to six for Memphis.
“The stat sheet is not pretty, but I’ll take a win any day,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “They stayed in the middle of the ring. We didn’t knock Memphis out until the end of the game, but we kept throwing body blows after body blows. Finally in overtime, we got that lead and we didn’t relinquish it.”
And they have Napier.
“He is a great player. He’s an All-American player,” Ollie raved. “I know I might be biased, but he’s the best guard in America to me, hands down. He just keeps focusing in on the things we need to do to win. He knows when it’s time to take over the game.”
That time came at the 11:38 mark in the second half. After a steal, he hit two free throws and on the Huskies’ next possession, he made a tough floater in the lane. He then ripped down a defensive rebound and nailed a three-pointer from four feet behind the line for a 58-51 lead.
“Shabazz, man, he hit some tough and contested shots,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “He and (Ryan) Boatright are excellent players and you’re not going to hold them scoreless, obviously.”
Memphis, led by Joe Jackson’s 24 points and Geron Johnson’s 15, came back thanks to several uncontested trips down the lane for easy baskets.
The Tigers led by three with 1:02 remaining when Napier’s three-point attempt for the tie was off. Phil Nolan, who has shown recent improvement, secured the offensive rebound to keep the possession alive.
Napier then drove to the hoop and was fouled hard. In the process, his lay-up and free throw knotted the game at 69.
“I really liked Phil’s rebound,” Ollie said. “We got out-rebounded, but that was the biggest rebound of the game.”
DeAndre Daniels saved the Huskies (20-5, 8-4 AAC) with a block on Shaq Goodwin’s shot with 16 seconds on the clock. Following the play, there was some pushing and shoving, but it didn’t escalate and no technical fouls were called.
“All you can ask for is a shot to tie or win the game,” Pastner said. “We had a great chance.”
In overtime, Boatright’s lay-up with 3:47 left gave the Huskies the lead for good at 72-71. The junior, who hit the 1,000-point career mark in the first half, scored eight of his season-high 21 points in the extra session.
“It’s been an honor to have the opportunity (to score 1,000 points) at such a great university,” Boatright said. “It’s a blessing from God to have the ability to do so. To do this in such a huge win, in a game where we stuck together and dug down deep, feels really good.”
The Huskies sealed the win on the strength of Napier’s three with 1:45 left and a 9-of-12 effort from the foul line in overtime.
“It was a Connecticut (type of) win,” Ollie said. “It wasn’t the prettiest game on our end, but at the end of the day, we found a way. That’s why I love this team. They may be small or whatever you want to write, but you can’t measure their heart. They got the greatest heart ever. “
And, once again, they have Napier.
“To be the player I want to be, you have to step up in (big) moments,” Napier said. “I enjoy it.”
And the Huskies, along with their biggest crowd of the season, enjoyed their sixth victory in seven games, including two against their budding rival in Memphis.