Napier, seniors end home careers with win over Rutgers
STORRS – Considering all he’s been through, from a national title to his team's postseason ban to his number of heroic shots, it would’ve been very easy for Shabazz Napier to get overwhelmed with emotion during his final home game in a Connecticut uniform.
Instead, he was fully focused and, for good measure, added yet another accomplishment among his list of career achievements.
Following a pregame ceremony honoring UConn’s seniors, Napier nailed a career-high seven three-pointers en route to 26 points in leading the Huskies to a 69-63 victory over Rutgers at Gampel Pavilion Wednesday night.
Napier, along with fellow seniors Niels Giffey, Lasan Kromah, Tyler Olander and Tor Watts, received framed jerseys and were celebrated with a video tribute.
Then it was time to work. Napier, notably, did not miss a beat.
“I wasn’t worried about it at all,” Napier said of the quick ceremony-to-game turnaround. “It was definitely a special moment and I was excited for it being Senior Day, but I was more excited to play."
UConn coach Kevin Ollie had no concerns over his his team's readiness.
“At the end of the day, you just have to play basketball,” Ollie said. “Sometimes you’re going to have emotional games, but you have to continue to play and not get caught up in the emotions. We were locked in and focused.”
Napier made four three-pointers in the first half, three in the second and also had four assists, three steals and a block.
"There was a lot of open shots tonight for me to take," Napier said. "If you leave me a little room, I'm going to take them."
Giffey also finished his home career in style, registering a career-high 16 points, adding four three-pointers of his own. Giffey and Napier combined to make 11 of their 18 three-point attempts.
“We wanted to have a three-point contest, honestly,” joked Napier.
Their three-point shooting proved to be the difference as the Huskies had some issues finishing off a Rutgers team that has struggled to an 11-19 record. That mark includes double-digit home losses to Drexel and William & Mary and a 102-54 defeat at Louisville on Feb. 16.
DeAndre Daniels had a critical block late and Phil Nolan drew another final-minute charge to help seal a win. Napier added a free throw to provide the final margin for UConn (24-6, 12-5 AAC), which stumbled to the finish line.
“We have to figure it out offensively down the stretch of games,” Napier said. “I can not stress enough that defense is what’s going to continue to help us win games. We may not make a lot of shots, but if we work hard on defense, we’ll have a great shot to win, no matter what.”
Following the win, Ollie spoke to the crowd and proclaimed his team will be back in Gampel come April to raise another banner. Ollie says the statement was based off belief.
“I have confidence in my guys and I have confidence we’re going to win every game,” Ollie said. “I believe in myself and my coaching staff, no matter what the situation. I believe we’re going to win the national championship. It’s the only way I believe."
A belief his players carry.
“That’s how he feels and we don’t want to shy away from it,” Napier said. “Everyone wants to get to the last game. I’m definitely going to back him up because that’s my coach. Anything he says, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Napier’s Gampel finale was one to remember and one that ended with MVP chants coming from the crowd when he was at the foul line. He also took to a turn at the mike after the game to address the fans.
“It was kind of mind-blowing to hear that,” Napier said. “I was not expecting it and it was gratifying. It just shows how much they appreciate you. I appreciate them.”
If Ollie’s premonition of an April Gampel bash is to come true, Napier will need to be that MVP. Judging off Wednesday's effort, his season and his career as well, it's a challenge he will embrace.