This one sure felt like the old Big East, didn't it?
Shabazz Napier scored 25 points—21 in the second half—to lead the seventh-seeded University of Connecticut Huskies over the second-seeded Villanova Wildcats, 77-65, before 19,290 fans at First Niagara Arena in Buffalo on Saturday. Indeed, Buffalo was “Upset Central” on this day as 11th-seeded Dayton dispensed with No. 3 Syracuse, 55-53, in the day's other action.
While Napier led the way, the Huskies had to play a good chunk of the game without their senior All-American candidate. He played just eight minutes in the first half after picking up his second foul, then left the game again—albeit briefly—after injuring his right shin with four minutes left in regulation.
“I was trying to get open for the ball, and I think it was [Villanova guard Darrun] Hilliard was playing me aggressively,” Napier said after the game. “I just tried to make a move, and he kind of kicked me or kneed me in my shin area.
“The pain was just excruciating, he continued “I couldn't really put pressure on it. Our athletic trainer James Doran, one of the best in the country, he was just applying pressure on it to make sure I was fine. Put some good Biofreeze on it. He told me mentally stay strong.”
Whatever Doran said and did worked.
“Physically, everything felt like it was in the right place,” added Napier. “I think it was just a deep bruise.”
Napier missed all of 40 seconds. When he returned, the Huskies were leading by seven, 58-51. Directing the Connecticut offense as always, he dribbled the ball on top of the three-point line behind the foul line, then drove past Villanova guard James Bell into the paint and put up a signature dipsy-doo underhanded reverse layup. The ball banked high off the glass and went straight through the hold giving the Huskies a nine-point advantage with just 2:19 remaining in the contest.
Things were looking up for Husky Nation.
“[Napier] made some outstanding plays,” said Bell. “Do I feel like we could have did more? Maybe a little more pressure on the ball, but he's an outstanding player that made outstanding plays.”
“Napier was just awesome,” agreed Villanova head coach Jay Wright. “There was just a period there where he hit those three threes, and it just created a separation. In a game that close, that separation was tough to make up, and I think that was probably the story of the game, their defense and that period where Napier hit three deep threes.”
Wright was referring to a 12-6 UConn run midway through the second half in which Napier threw up—and made—three consecutive treys. The run began when Lasaan Kromah, a 6-6 swingman who enrolled in grad school at UConn this season after playing three years at George Washington, banged one in from downtown with 10:34 remaining in regulation. By the time it was over, with just under nine minutes left, a five-point Husky lead was now nine, 54-45, with 6:08 to play.
The story of the first half was defense. Connecticut defense. After the Wildcats hit five of their first eight shots, they were successful on just 2 of their next 15, including an 11:25 stretch in which the Huskies did not allow a field goal.
“They were penetrating and going out and getting easy threes, so we wanted to run them off the three-point line,” said UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, who had been through the NCAA Tournament wars as a player, but his a first-timer as a coach. His record ad a coach in the Tournament, just for the record, is 2-0.
With the Huskies leading by one, 25-24, at intermission, the two former Big East rivals traded leads over the first 5:25 of the second stanza. A layup by DeAndre Daniels gave Connecticut 37-36 lead—one they would not relinquish.
Ryan Arcidiacono led Villanova with 18 points, while Bell put 14 on the scoreboard and Hilliard added 13 for the Wildcats, who end the season at 29-5.
Kromah put up 12 points for the Huskies, while Daniels, Ryan Boatright and Terrence Samuel each had 11. Samuel's contribution was particularly significant, as he was subbing for Napier in the first half.
“He just matured so much,” said Napier on the 6-4 freshman guard from Brooklyn. “You know, in high school you play so many minutes. You want to do the same when you get to college, but when you have great guards in front of you, it's kind of hard. He kept his head. He understands he's a big role member on this team Today, I mean, it didn't shock me one bit. It was just beautiful.”
Napier expects Samuel to continue to grow so long as he remains a Husky.
“I'm not the only one that's helping him out,” he continued. “Ryan Boatright is helping him out. Coach [Karl] Hobbs. Coach Ollie. We have a tremendous coaching staff that were great guards. So Terrence... Nothing he did today shocked any of us. He does that all the time. He can take over in practice. That's just how he is. He just showed how much he matured, and I'm just happy for that.”
Ollie, meanwhile, heaped praise on his senior point guard.
"[Napier] led us to victory," Ollie said. "He was just unbelievable in that second half: 21 points, crucial 3s—dagger 3s. He was 30 feet out and he was making them.”
With the win, the Huskies improve to 28-8 and move on the the Sweet 16 at Madison Square Garden where they will take on the winner of today's game between third-seeded Iowa State and No. 6 seed North Carolina, which barely escaped against another of the Huskies' former Big East foes, Providence, on Friday.
The Wildcats', who won the Big East regular season but were upset in the conference tournament by Seton Hall, finish at 29-5—a very disappointing end to a season that started such promise: a 25-0 record and No.-1 ranking.
"Certainly a tough way to end the season," said Wright . "I didn't want to let this put a damper on what this group has done all year.”
As gloomy as the Villanova locker room was, Connecticut's was the exact opposite.
“It's unbelievable," said UConn athletic director Warde Manuel, adding that it was “extra special” after last year's situation—that being a one-year suspension from postseason play because of academic violations. Those violations were on Jim Calhoun's watch. Calhoun is currently the Huskies' biggest fan who wants to coach Boston College—ironically a team he flatly refused to play after BC left the Big East for ACC and its football riches in 2005.
That is all water under the dam, however. Now it's on the Sweet 16, where the Huskies have found themselves in five of the past 10 seasons—but their first since 2011, when they won the national championship. And, of course, they will looking for another upset, regardless of their opponent.
"I guess it means something to you guys,” said Napier to the press after his team's “upset” of Villanova. “But at the end of the day, just because they're No. 2 and we're No. 7, they don't get extra points to start the game off. Everybody's the same."
“It's always good to go back to the Garden,” added Boatright. “At UConn, we call the Garden our second home because, when we go to the Garden, we take care of business. But it just feels good to go through to the Sweet 16.”
Did I mention this feels like the Big East all over again?
“Going through what we went through last year, it was hurtful and painful to watch.,” continued Boatright. “We didn't have nothing to do with the sanctions, but it just feels good, man, to move on.”
“Everybody talks about we're not deep, we're not this, we're not that,” said Ollie. “But we've got heart. Every guy that comes in on the court, they stay positive, and they stay productive. That's what our guys do. That's how we're built. We're UConn made through and through. And every day we come out there and play with that toughness and play with that heart.”