Shabazz Napier stared down West Virginia, and when it mattered he didn't blink.
You are not supposed to win basketball games when you are down nine with three minutes left. You are not supposed to win basketball games when your opponent withstands your comeback attempt by scoring on six out of seven possessions. And you are definitely not supposed to win basketball games when you give up 21 offensive rebounds. Good thing no one told Shabazz Napier.
UConn's sophomore point guard put forth the Shabazz Napier performance to end all Shabazz Napier performances and singlehandedly willed the Huskies into the Big East quarterfinals and a third date with the Syracuse Orange. There are dozens of things you can criticize about Napier's game, but down nine with four minutes left he showed why the one thing you can never question is his heart. Over a two minute period Napier scored nine points, hitting a ballsy three and stealing the ball on two separate occasions to set himself up for fast break points. And when West Virginia scored to end the streak and take the lead it was Napier again, pushing the ball up the court and setting up an easy Andre Drummond basket to retie the game.
Of course, player that he is, it can't all be positive with Napier. Late in the game he nearly got T'd up for going after a ref. He got trapped near halfcourt with under a minute left and turned over the ball. As regulation was coming to a close he dribbled out the clock and launched a three with a hand in his instead of driving to the hoop, and in overtime he picked up two quick fouls and fouled out. The first, a charge, was probably a bad call and the second was ticky-tack, but it was on a dumb reach and inexcusable considering the circumstances.
But you take the good with the bad with Shabazz, and today that good is a trip to the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, because this much is clear: the Huskies would not win this game without Shabazz Napier.
They would not have won it without Jeremy Lamb either, who had 22 points, including a dagger 3 in overtime that wound up being the difference in the game. Lamb was great in the first half, looking as aggressive as he has in his career as a husky, but if the Huskies want to keep this run going he's going to need to put together a full 40 minutes. He didn't score in the last six minutes of regulation today, which was enough to get past West Virginia, but won't fly against Syracuse tomorrow.
But perhaps the Huskies should save their biggest thank yous for a couple of West Virginia players. Darryl "Truck" Bryant missed a spectacularly ill-timed three to spark UConn's comeback and let the Huskies sustain their momentum a minute later by missing the front half of a one-and-one. More importantly, hirsute rebounding machine Deniz Kilicil fouled out with four minutes to go in regulation, drastically reducing West Virginia's ability to dominate the glass.
The Huskies also deserve commendation for their defensive effort down the stretch. The absence of Kilicil was a big factor, but UConn limited the Mountaineers to just six points in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime and kept the Mountaineers from scoring a single field goal in the extra period.
It definitely wasn't pretty, and there is plenty to critique (free throw shooting in overtime and nearly fouling WVU on the last play are just two of several items I'm sure will be highlighted by the coaching staff), but this is March and how you win games is a hell of a lot less important than making sure you win games.
UConn's locked up an NCAA spot now, that's for certain, but before they look ahead to that they have a date with the Orange and a chance to play spoiler. UConn and Syracuse have a bit of history with each other, and more than a bit of it has come in Madison Square Garden. Here's hoping the next chapter continues the trend.