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UConn vets Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright deliver; young Wildcats wilt under pressure

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

 

ARLINGTON, Texas – Shabazz Napier had snipped his section of net, hugged every teammate, and then slapped dozens of fans' hands as he walked off the court a champion.

On the long walk to the locker room in massive AT&T Stadium after the 60-54 defeat of Kentucky, a teammate threw an arm over the Connecticut guard's shoulder and together they woofed into a TV camera for a while. Then another teammate ran up and yelled, "Hey 'Bazz, we just won the whole thing, that's all!"

But the final 20 yards to the locker room turned into a surprising solo sojourn for the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. For the only time all night, he was briefly alone with his thoughts.

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Shabazz Napier holds the championship trophy after defeating Kentucky. (AP)

Napier tugged at the tape on his right wrist and said aloud, but to no one in particular, "Bittersweet moment, man. I'm a senior. Can't believe this is my last game."

This was the senior moment that capped the so-called Year of the Freshman in college basketball. It was a triumph of veteran guards – Napier and endlessly crafty junior Ryan Boatright – over a transient NBA team on training wheels that finally played young Monday night (especially at the foul line). It was little over big. It was quickness over bulk. It was a championship return on a multi-year investment.

It was a guard's night in what is still a guard's game – Napier and Boatright combining for 36 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and six steals. They made 13 of 22 field goals and all six free throws (part of a 10-for-10 UConn performance at the line). They dropped some backcourt science on the freshman twin tandem of Andrew and Aaron Harrison (15 points on 6-of-16 shooting, nine rebounds, five assists, five steals, seven turnovers, no big shots made). They made the big plays early to stake UConn to a lead it never relinquished, and made them late when the lead was in jeopardy.

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And it ended with Boatright sweetly holding his mother's hand on the court, both of them two months removed from a wrenching family tragedy. And it ended with Napier crying in his mother's arms, bits of red confetti stuck to his neck. The best backcourt in America will split up now, but the diminutive alpha males of this Big Dance wrote a memorable final chapter together.

Napier won't wear the UConn uniform again, but it'll hang in the rafters of Gampel Pavilion soon enough. At a school that has won four of the last 16 national titles, Shabazz Napier is the only Husky to be a key part of two of them – as a sidekick to the dominant Kemba Walker in 2011, and as the leading man in 2014.

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Shabazz Napier embraces his mother, Carmen Velasquez as the team watches a highlight video. (AP)

"He done took it twice, freshman and senior year," his mom, Carmen Velasquez, had exulted earlier, before wrapping her arms around her sobbing son and rubbing his back.

The bookend titles did not come without some heartache and angst in between. Napier's sophomore year had been a stress-filled immersion in frustration, as he failed at being Kemba 2.0. When the season ended with a round-of-64 loss to Iowa State, Napier was punching lockers and people doubted he had the makeup of a leader. Then UConn was banned from the NCAA tournament his junior year for a low Academic Progress Rate score, an embarrassment for the school and a bitter pill for the players who had to watch March Madness on TV.

"This is what happens when you ban us," Napier had said on national TV after the game, hinting at the grudge UConn kept from its year on the outside.

Asked about it later, he said, "We hungry. … I just wanted to grab everybody's attention and introduce the Hungry Huskies, because it's been two years. It's quite funny because I was laying down [earlier Monday] and I was thinking of something to say, because I knew we were going to win."

Fact is, Napier knew UConn was going to win this thing in January – or so he told his teammates. After a home loss to Louisville – one of three losses to the Cardinals, including a 33-pointer in March – he declared the Huskies would be national champions.

"Everybody pick your head up," Napier said he told his teammates at the time. "At the end of the day, we're going to be the team that's going to be holding up that trophy. I promise you that."

Promise kept.


As "One Shining Moment" played on the giant video screen above him, Boatright watched with his arms folded across his chest. Near the end of the annual ode to March Madness, the screen showed the title game's end – Boatright sinking to one knee on the court as the streamers came down from the ceiling.

As he knelt, the kid from Aurora, Ill., raised his right index finger to the sky. It was a gesture to Arin Williams, a cousin he loved like a brother.

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Ryan Boatright holds the championship trophy. (AP)

"I was just saying thank you to him," Boatright said. "He would probably be the first person behind my mom I would hug."

In January, Williams was shot in the back of the head in an Aurora restaurant. Two brothers have been charged with first-degree murder in a crime police say was drug-related.

Williams and Boatright grew up together and saw each other almost daily. He returned home from Storrs for the funeral to help his family through the tragedy.

"I'm the oldest and I'm the man of the house," said Boatright. "I had to be there for them."

His mother, Tanesha, said Ryan had a difficult time going back to school after the funeral.

"It was the hardest thing he had to go through," she said.

Earlier Monday, Boatright tweeted a picture of himself, Williams and a deceased uncle. He told his mother, "He's not here, mommy, but he's with me. We're going to pull down this championship for him."

With that, Tanesha excused herself to cry on a friend's shoulder.

Boatright had been brilliant Monday night, his quickness and cunning leaving Kentucky flat-footed and confounded. He made five of six field goals, rising artistically in the air like a figurine atop a trophy. The shortest player on the court grabbed four rebounds, had three assists and three steals.

Most impressively, he gutted out the last nine minutes after rolling an ankle. In obvious pain, he ignored it to finish the game.

"It hurt bad," Boatright said. "But I had so much adrenaline and so much heart, I wasn't going to let an ankle twist keep me out of the national championship."

Nothing kept the gritty guards from their title. Not tying for third in the American Athletic Conference, not the length and strength of Kentucky, not the trials they've endured on the path to young adulthood. Their stature is not great, but their status as UConn heroes is huge.

 

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