Lost in the resounding hoopla of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Tyler Ennis, and the entire Kentucky freshman class was a senior guard from the University of Connecticut named Shabazz Napier. And although Napier has been operating mostly under the radar as the leader of the Final Four bound Huskies, his play in the Sweet 16 under the bring lights of historic Madison Square Garden spoke louder than any the aforementioned players during this year’s tournament.
But the 22 points he averaged during the Sweet 16 doesn’t come close to summing up what the Massachusetts native’s contribution to the game really meant. Every time the Huskies needed to stall a run with a big shot Napier made one, whenever the team needed to calm down on offense Napier slowed the ball down to set up a play and most importantly, when UConn needed to seal the deal at the free throw line Napier was perfect.
With the tough couple of years that UConn has had – being banned from last year’s NCAA tournament, suffering through recruiting sanctions, losing their long-time leader in Jim Calhoun and being left out of the major conference realignments to play in the less respected AAC – Napier’s gritty play and will to win reflects perfectly how this 7th seeded UConn team who many expected to lose to Villanova in the first weekend, has overcome usually crippling obstacles to dance all the way to the Final Four.
Ironically, Michigan State’s Gary Harris summed up what Napier means to his team perfectly.
His will to win. You could just see it. He wasn’t going to let his team lose. He was the one making the big plays for them at the end of the stretch and that’s why he’s such a great player. You could just see by playing against him he’s a winner and he willed his team to victory.
In Saturday’s Final Four the Huskies will face Florida, who they beat in December on a buzzer beater by Napier and if anyone can defeat a Gator team that hasn’t lost since that evening it will be one lead by Shabazz.