The Year in Review. December of '13. Napier the hero again in UConn's buzzer-beating win over Florida.
STORRS – Been there, done that. Many times, actually.
After hitting a buzzer-beating jumper at the foul line, Shabazz Napier, the heart and soul of the UConn men’s basketball team, who has a history of not just making winning shots, but wild ones, casually jogged off the Gampel Pavilion floor and headed to the locker room.
His team, the student section next to the tunnel and the rest of the 10,167 fans were not about to go quietly after UConn’s improbable 65-64 victory over No. 15 Florida Monday night.
Led by fellow senior Niels Giffey, the Huskies ran after Napier, jumping over the media table at the court and nearly taking out some computers in the process. The students, who head coach Kevin Ollie credited for the win because of their energy, tried to storm the floor before security intervened. A good portion of the crowd, still in shock, stayed in the arena for at least 15 minutes after the game to celebrate.
Yes, it’s only the first week of December. And yes, conference play has yet to start.
But this victory seems like more for the 12th-ranked Huskies, who now stand at 8-0 with four wins of two points or less on their resume.
“We didn’t do a lot of things (right tonight), but, at the end of the day, we got a win and got it because of our heart,” Ollie said. “It’s heart that’s going to get you through. Sometimes you can’t go over the top of it, sometimes you can’t go under it, so you’ve got to go right through it. And that’s what this team is doing.
“We’re not the biggest team in America, but, man, I wouldn’t trade our heart for anybody.”
That heart helped the Huskies, who trailed 48-41 with 12 minutes left before rattling off a 10-0 run, highlighted by threes from Napier and Giffey.
Florida, paced by Casey Prather’s 19 points and 17 from Patric Young, never backed down, using its size to establish a 34-26 rebounding advantage.
The always rebound-challenged Huskies somehow corralled two offensive rebounds in the final minute and Napier nailed a three plus a foul for a four-point play and a 63-62 lead with 33.5 seconds play.
Michael Frazier II’s lay-up with 17.7 seconds left put the Gators up one, setting the stage for Napier’s latest heroics. Those heroics didn’t come without adversity.
Off the inbounds pass, Napier (game-high 26 points, five three-pointers) was trapped by two defenders and momentarily lost possession. He regained the ball, but fired up a wild 18-footer that smashed off the backboard. Miraculously, the ball ricocheted off DeAndre Daniels’ hand back to Napier, standing all alone at the foul line.
The senior captain regained his composure and calmly hit the game-winner as Gampel erupted into a championship winning-like frenzy.
He then left the building.
“Coach drew up the pick and roll and I tried to break through the middle of the trap,” Napier explained. “After I lost the ball, I was just trying to make something out of nothing. Thankfully, DeAndre tipped it out because I wouldn’t be able to live with myself after that first shot. It was terrible.”
The Gators knew what was coming and defended the initial play call perfectly. The ball, though, as it always seems to do, found Napier in the end.
“We made the decision that we were going to trap him,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. “And we did trap him and we got him to take a very, very difficult, off-balance shot. The guy that won the game for them was DeAndre Daniels. He made an unbelievable tip out, which kept the ball alive.”
Napier’s shot joins his long list of memorable moments, such as winning a championship as a freshman, the crazy 35-foot game-winner at Villanova in 2012 and just two weeks ago when he almost single-handedly beat Indiana at Madison Square Garden.
It’s natural at this point.
“Of course,” Napier said when asked if he thought the last shot was going in. “I’m not saying that to be cocky, but I’ve worked very hard at my craft. I believe every shot I take is going to go in. It has to.”
“Shabazz was phenomenal,” added Ollie. “Whenever we need a big shot, he makes that. Whenever we need a play to be made, he made that. Hopefully, America is starting to look at him as a man. He’s one of the big time players to ever put this jersey on and walk on the court at Gampel.”
Having the guts to take those shot is not for everyone. Napier, however, takes it in stride.
“Growing up in the Boston school leagues and AAU, I was always counted on to take those type of shots,” Napier said. “I've missed so many of them, but I’ve learned from those failures. It’s a special feeling when you make one of those. It definitely was tonight.”
It was just another night in his ever growing special career. And another night in this ever growing special season for the Huskies.