When Shabazz Napier stepped to the free throw line in the closing seconds of last night's game I could not help but flash back twelve years to Khalid El-Amin's game-clinching free throws against Duke in the 1999 National Championship game. Sure, the circumstances weren't exactly the same -- El-Amin's shots came in the title game and this was just the semifinal, and Napier's shots put UConn up by four instead of just three -- but there were too many similarities not too notice.
The wall of my house used to have a large panoramic photo of El-Amin taking those free throws. I always marveled at the scale of that, with thousands and thousands of people all looking on, focused on El-Amin. I got the same feeling last night as Napier, the smallest guy on the court, stepped to the line in front of 75,000 people, and just like Khalid, he came through.
Of course, it's not just the moment that made me think of Khalid, it's the style. Like Khalid, Shabazz seems to love being on the court -- you can see it in the smile. I don't know if there is a term for what the attitude the two seem to share, a wonderful combination of exuberance, confidence and swagger, but it's definitely there.
Now, Napier didn't have a perfect game, in fact, he was far from it going only 1-7 from the field and committing three costly TOs. But he never let it get him down. With under a minute left he made one of his trademark dumb decisions, dribbling into two Kentucky defenders and losing the ball off his foot. He responded perfectly though:
"When he turned the ball over last night by trying to attack the two guys," Calhoun said. "We get to the bench, before I could say a word, he said, 'Coach, I'll get it next play.' The next play for him happened to be the two foul shots. That's Shabazz Napier."
"I just needed a chance to redeem myself," Napier said. "In the beginning of the season, I probabably aged him 10 years. He's one of the best coaches in the world because he lets me go out there and redeem myself and redeem myself and redeem myself."
It's hard not to love that. Look, when UConn takes the court tomorrow night the Huskies will be, as always, Kemba Walker's team. But tomorrow night is the last time we can say that because next year Kemba isn't going to be here. That means there are a lot of questions for the Huskies, but as long as Shabazz Napier is here to help answer them I think I'm okay with that.