by Peter Walsh
Following a Kemba Walker-esque 25-point, 6-rebound, 4-assist performance in front of a raucous pro-Husky crowd at Madison Square Garden, UConn Huskies senior point guard Shabazz Napier hugged his mother, hoisted the East Regional Championship trophy and climbed the ladder to cut down the nets for the second time during his tenure in Storrs, CT. Napier, a senior who already has one National Championship on his resume, almost threw away his chance at the moment after the program went through massive changes. First former Head Coach Jim Calhoun retired, then the team was banned from postseason play following numerous infractions, and finally, UConn left the Big East for the AAC.
Fortunately for second-year Head Coach Kevin Ollie and the Huskies, giving up isn’t in the dynamic point guard’s DNA.
“My sophomore year I didn’t play the way I was supposed to. I wasn’t a great leader, and I felt like I owed a lot to the university,” recalls Napier. “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. When you come to Connecticut you learn two things: You learn the brotherhood and you learn how to stay loyal. That’s what I’ve learned and I continue to push myself to understand that.”
Napier didn’t walk out or attempt a jump to the NBA when things didn’t go his way. Instead, the Roxbury, Massachusetts native trusted Coach Ollie and the process and averaged 17.9 points, 5.9 boards, 4.9 assists and took home the AAC’s Player of the Year Award to cap off his outstanding senior season. Against Iowa State and Michigan State teams with potential lottery picks, Napier was by far the best player on the court during both games and dazzled the Garden crowd in attendance with grit and a flair for theatrics.
After Sunday’s victory, Napier waded amongst family, friends and former UConn stars like Rip Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin, Jim Calhoun and Andre Drummond, and the spotlight shone brightest on the 6-1 point guard. As his teammates celebrated on the Garden floor, Napier weaved throughout with a huge smile on his face, dapping up anyone in his vicinity. Though he was named the weekend’s Most Outstanding Player and reporters swarmed him looking for a quote, it wasn’t until Napier climbed the ladder that the importance of the moment hit him.
“I was kind of flustered,” Napier says. “I was thinking, What is going on, man? It’s incredible. The way we got here, the route that we took, the hard work we put in, to be able to step up the ladder and cut down the nets felt special.”
Whenever a big event swings through Madison Square Garden, the magic and electricity in the building tends to bring out the best in certain individuals. Napier now goes down in history with the likes of Oscar Robertson, Kemba Walker and Cal Ramsey as players who etched pieces of their own personal legacies at MSG. After 51 years without the NCAA Tournament in the building, the underdog Huskies had the perfect team and the perfect player for the moment.
Napier and the Huskies continue their amazing streak on Saturday in Dallas when they face the No. 1-seeded Florida Gators. The Gators and Huskies already met once this season when the Huskies were one of two teams to hand Florida a loss—on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater, unsurprisingly. The Gators have stormed through the East Regional while the Huskies have played the underdog role to a T. The Huskies will face another deep, senior-laden team but the Huskies and Napier are ready for all challenges that await them in Dallas.
“It was a dogfight, a tough game, and it came down to one last shot,” says Napier of UConn’s last matchup with Florida. “And I expect it to be the same [this time], a dogfight. And Coach is going to get us prepared for this game, and let’s get down there and do our thing.”