HOUSTON – Shabazz Napier knew the foul was coming.
Connecticut led Kentucky by two points as the final seconds ticked away in Saturday's NCAA semifinal, and Napier had just rebounded a missed 3-pointer by Wildcats guard DeAndre Liggins. As he stood under the Reliant Stadium basket, Napier did what was instructed in those situations.
He looked for Kemba Walker.
"Kemba is our captain," Napier said. "He's the guy you want with the ball at the end of the day."
But Walker wasn't there.
Or at least not quickly enough.
So Napier cradled the ball and braced for what came next: A hard foul by Kentucky's Terrence Jones that sent Napier to the free throw line with 2 seconds remaining. Make the free throws, and Connecticut was headed to Monday's national championship game to play Butler. Miss, and Kentucky still had a chance.
Shortly before stepping to the foul stripe, Napier spotted his mother in the stands.
"I could see she was scared," Napier said, "and that got me a little nervous, too. But then I relaxed and told myself, 'It's game time.' "
Moments later, it was "game over."
In two quick flicks of the wrist, Napier moved Connecticut one win away from completing one of the most unlikely postseason runs in NCAA history. Napier's free throws proved to be the difference in the Huskies' 56-55 victory, as Kentucky's Brandon Knight made a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would've forced overtime had Napier missed one of the foul shots.
Instead, Napier found himself celebrating on the court after his team's 10th straight victory. Seven of the wins have come against ranked opponents, which is difficult to fathom considering Connecticut ended the regular season with losses in four of its final five regular-season games. The Huskies finished ninth in the Big East.
"One win away," forward Alex Oriakhi said. "It's almost hard to believe."
For most of the regular season, Connecticut was known as a one-man team. With Walker, a junior, averaging 23.9 points for a squad that featured three freshmen and two sophomores among its top six players, it was easy to see why a Final Four run would've seemed out of the question a month or so ago.
But something special has happened during this postseason run. While Walker has been brilliant as always, the players surrounding him – the guys often referred to as "scrubs" – have stepped up in the biggest way possible.
And on the biggest stage.
Some games it's been freshman Jeremy Lamb, who had 24 points against San Diego State and 19 against Arizona. Other times Oriakhi, Roscoe Smith or Jamal Coombs-McDaniel have come to the rescue. Saturday it was Napier's turn – and he almost blew it.
Connecticut led 54-52 when Napier lost control of his dribble with 16 seconds remaining. Kentucky's Brandon Knight came up with the loose ball and called timeout to set up a final shot.
"I felt like I let my team down," Napier said. "That's the worst feeling in the whole world."
As he approached the Huskies huddle, Napier knew he'd be chastised by coach Jim Calhoun.
"He looked at me and said, 'Coach, I'll make up for it on the next play,' " Calhoun said. "What am I going to say?"
Sure enough, Napier came up with the big rebound after Liggins' missed 3-pointer on Kentucky's ensuing possession. Following another timeout – "It seemed like two hours," Napier said – the freshman stepped to the line and hit the two biggest free throws of his life.
Other than his clutch foul shots, Napier had a quiet night offensively. His lone field goal was a big one – a reverse lay-up that gave the Huskies a 54-48 lead with 2:30 remaining. But before that, he'd missed all six of his attempts.
Defensively, though, Napier turned in an effort that was even more praiseworthy than his clutch free throws, as Napier got the best of Kentucky's Knight in the battle of the two freshmen. Knight had 17 points, but he was just 6 of 23 from the field partly because of Napier's menacing pressure.
"We call those costly points," Calhoun said. "Knight is an absolutely tremendous player. But 6 for 23 is expensive. That's how we look at it. We try to use that term defensively. If you take a lot of tough shots, that's expensive, because your field-goal percentage goes down and we, in turn, have a much better chance to win."
Knight's struggles had to be rewarding for Napier, who was recruited by Connecticut only after Knight spurned the Huskies to sign with Kentucky.
"My assistants would tell you that I'm the only thing he's afraid of," Calhoun said earlier in the week. "You'd have to line up a hell of a dragon, with fire coming out of its nostrils, for him to even flinch.
"He has great intestinal fortitude. He is fearless."
Except for that one moment on Saturday, when Napier looked into the stands and saw his mother, Carmen Velasquez, with that frightened look on her face.
Even then, though, Napier regained his composure and kept his cool. It all made for a memorable celebration after the final horn. As Napier made his way toward the railing to hug the woman who raised him, he noticed tears in her eyes.
"They were tears of joy," he said.
- Brandon Knight