NEW YORK — Things must have felt very familiar for Connecticut in Madison Square Garden on Friday night. Jim Calhoun was in the house, the Husky defense was denying the opponent at the rim and a UConn guard was taking over a big tournament game.
It wasn’t Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Ben Gordon or Kemba Walker, but Shabazz Napier, the senior from Massachusetts who’s gotten pretty good at this World’s Most Famous Arena thing. He’s now 8-1 in postseason games at the Garden, spanning from the 2011 Big East Tournament to Friday night’s 81-76 Sweet 16 victory over Iowa State.
While he was a key part of Walker’s supporting cast during the five-game run as a freshman, this is now Napier’s team. In the highly anticipated guard matchup between the senior and Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane, Napier dominated, knocking down his first four shots – all threes – to give the Huskies an early advantage they never relinquished. He finished with 19 points, 5 assists, 5 rebounds and a pair of steals.
“I don’t think I’m able to do what he did,” said Napier, comparing himself to Walker, the Husky legend who led UConn to the 2011 national title. “I just want to do what I’m capable of doing, my ability, and wherever that takes us is where we’re going.”
"All those guys come back in the summertime and play with our guys," said UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, referring to the slew of Huskies that have passed through Storrs on their way to success in the pros. "But the best thing, they put their arms around our guys and they show, they give their gift away. That's a beautiful thing when you can have a Ray Allen come back, a Kemba Walker come back and just give them gold nuggets."
UConn was left for dead by many following a 81-48 loss to Louisville three weekends ago, but Napier rallied his squad to a comeback win over St. Joseph's in overtime followed by an upset of Villanova to get them back to the Sweet 16 and the friendly confines of the Garden. Through three tournament games, the American Conference Player of the Year has collected 68 points, 17 boards, 14 assists and 7 steals.
“He’s just a great player,” said Ollie, who’s reached the Elite Eight in his first NCAA Tournament as head coach. “When I have the ball in his hands at the end of a game or at a crucial time, I couldn’t think of a better guard to do it because he’s not scared of the moment.”
Napier could have bailed on the program numerous times over the past few years. The Huskies knew they were banned from the 2013 postseason and there was no guarantee Ollie would prosper in his first head coaching job. With NBA scouts projecting Napier as a potential first-round pick, few would have blamed him for jumping ship.
“My sophomore year I didn’t play the way I was supposed to,” said Napier when asked about his decision to stick with the program. “I wasn’t a great leader, and I felt like I owed a lot to the university. I felt like they stayed loyal to me and I wanted to stay loyal back. When you have that trust in someone and trust in the university to always have your back, if you run out on them, I don’t think that’s fair.”
How comfortable is Napier in the Garden? Very, as long as the UConn faithful have made the trek from Storrs.
"We just feel like Madison Square Garden is kind of our third home," said Napier after win. "Gampel [Pavilion] being the first and [XL Center] being the second. We just want to come out and give our best effort. And with our fans behind us, cheering for us whether we're up by ten or down by five, we feel like we always have a chance."
Now Napier is one win away from returning to the Final Four and the only question about Ollie’s coaching ability is whether he’s so good at this the NBA will come calling for him sooner rather than later. UConn will play the winner of Virginia-Michigan State on Sunday afternoon.
Garden Success for Husky Guards Over the Last Two Decades
1996: Ray Allen hits a game-winner in the Big East Tournament finals to give UConn the title.
1998 and 1999: Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin lead the Huskies to consecutive Big East crowns, the second jumpstarting a national title run. Hamilton is named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.
2004: Ben Gordon is named Big East Tournament MVP as the Huskies win the conference tournament. They go on to win the national title.
2011: Eleven straight wins for Kemba and the Miracles, as UConn goes from a bubble team to champions of both the Big East and NCAA tournaments. Walker is named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four.