Whew! So that happened.
Eight games into his senior season, Shabazz Napier has officially cemented his legacy as a UConn Husky great. I'm trying to find some perspective as to where his performance last night stands in the Pantheon of epic individual performances by a UConn Husky (also that maybe I should put together that Pantheon), and it's hard to think of anything more ballsy, gusty, or more Sam Casell-y than what Shabazz Napier did last night.
There's a huge difference between a great game, a great play and a meaningful win. Last night we saw all three. And we'll remember it forever.
Our two recent National Championship games were not all that exciting. They were meaningful, not great. The 2011 Tournament games against Arizona and Kentucky were great games. Despite the loss, that six overtime game with Syracuse in the Big East Tournament was a great game. Those were memorable because we saw two good teams leave it all on the court in a hotly contested game where the winner wasn't decided until the very end.
But then, there are great plays. Moments in time that are forever etched into your memory that still give you chills when you talk about it years later. Kemba Walker nailing a walk off fadeaway against Pitt in the Big East Tournament. Rashad Anderson's last second three to tie it in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen against Washington. Rip Hamilton on his butt with his hands in the air after hitting the game winner against Washington in the 1998 Sweet Sixteen.
Last night we saw a great game, with significant meaning that ended with a memorable last second shot to cap off one of the greatest individual performances in UConn history.
Before Shabazz hit that shot with 0.0 left on the clock, this was already a great game. I think the largest lead any team had was Florida's 7 point lead with just under 13 minutes left. Then, guess who, Shabazz Napier keyed a 10 point run highlighted by his two steals and some aggressive play from his partner in crime, DeAndre Daniels- who was stellar yesterday.
The two teams traded the lead back and forth across the remaining seven minutes until Lasan Kromah tied it up with about 1:30 left by making one of two free throws. Patric Young then hit a shot down low and was fouled, and made the free throw to put Florida up 3.
Then the magic started. Shabazz hit a ree-diculously deep three to tie it up. And, he was fouled! And, GASP, he might be hurt! After an Ollie timeout (great coaching), a slightly hobbled Napier obviously hit the free throw to put the Huskies up one. Michael Frazier II was able to drive to the lane and make a pretty tough layup to put the Gators up one with 17 seconds left.
Wow, what a great game! Win, lose or draw we were all entertained by this match-up between two very good teams in a loud arena playing a December game that felt very much like March.
"But wait," said Shabazz Napier in the movie that will be made of this season, "I'm not done yet"
Then this happened. Keep in mind, this man had just rolled his ankle. Willis Reed anyone?
Great game? Check. Great moment? Check, check. But Aman, why was this game significant? This isn't Syracuse, the regular season isn't all that important! Well, my dear reader, you make a good point. Let me explain.
For whatever reason nobody outside of Connecticut seemed to expect much from UConn Men's Basketball this year, or maybe even ever again. Outsiders thought Kevin Ollie had too much of an uphill battle dealing with the tournament ban, ensuing transfers, and succeeding the Hall of Fame coach who built the program from nothing. Moreover, they believed he had a barrel strapped to his back for this uphill climb when UConn ended up in something called the American Athletic Conference. Surely, amidst so much turmoil, UConn would fade quietly into oblivion.
This was a very good Florida team that we just beat, they have the right composition of players to make noise come Tournament time. With experience, great guard play, and tough post players, I would not want to face Florida for a second time in March. Beating this team was a huge statement win for the Huskies. In a season where it seemed like a forgone conclusion that Kentucky would win it all, the championship race actually appears to be wide open. And all of a sudden, it isn't so crazy to think UConn might be a candidate to cut down the nets at the end of the season.
I think the Huskies proved all of those things whether or not that last second shot goes in, but winning certainly helps. The reason this was so significant of a game was the atmosphere which the country saw at Gampel Pavilion. To have a ranked, marquee, non-conference opponent play us in Gampel and then win behind a crowd like that shows the nation that up in Storrs we are very, very, serious about sports. And if you weren't sure, just ask the soccer players from the top-ranked UCLA team who saw half the LA crowd rooting for the rural state school 3,000 miles away.
Hopefully Warde Manuel learned a valuable lesson about the magic of our beloved Pavilion. That game is one million percent less intense at the XL Center, and we may have lost, plain and simple. It's the disadvantage of being a small-market school I guess- the equivalent of the Buffalo Bills selling a home game to Toronto every year. It's just that I can't imagine Duke playing home games in Charlotte or Kansas playing any, let alone half, of their home games in Kansas City. Shabazz himself even had some words after the game about how great it was to play in Gampel and how different the XL Center is. Warde, if you're out there, please do whatever you can to host 100% of our home games at Gampel. We need it.
There will be plenty of time in the off-season to dissect Shabazz Napier's rightful place among UConn's great stars, or whether or not he can cut it at the next level. Right now the story is being written, and we should all consider ourselves lucky to be along for the ride.