By Gavin Keefe
Publication: The Day
Storrs - Junior Shabazz Napier was a popular topic of conversation following UConn's second straight overtime victory.
His teammates marveled about Napier's Kemba Walker-like ability to make clutch shots.
His coach, Kevin Ollie, raved about Napier's growth as a player and person.
And South Florida coach Stan Heath kept talking to his team about watching out for UConn's Big Shot Artist during the Big East game.
"That was the conversation we had at halftime, the conversation we had at the first timeout, the conversation we had throughout the whole game," Heath said. "We knew he's the guy who really likes to step up big."
Boy, did Napier step up big.
He scored 11 of his team's 17 points in overtime, including three straight 3-pointers to jump-start UConn in the extra session. The Huskies overcame a season low 30 percent shooting to post a 69-64 victory at Gampel Pavilion. They won their third straight to improve to 15-5, 5-3.
"He just makes remarkable shots," Ollie said. "He's just got that belief in himself. … He's committed to that shot and he's going to knock it down. If he misses, he shakes it off. It's a wonderful thing if you have that confidence as a basketball player, to step up in big moments."
Prior to overtime, Napier missed a long 3-pointer at the buzzer but quickly shook it off. He calmly buried the next two to start overtime to give the Huskies a six-point lead. He drained one more 3-pointer for a 61-54 edge with 1:39 remaining, and UConn closed it out from the foul line.
It was the second straight game that Napier rescued the Huskies from an uneven performance. He scored eight of UConn's 13 points in an 82-79 overtime win at Providence Thursday.
"I want to get the game over, so I'm more aggressive," Napier said of his overtime mentality. "I feel like I need to be more aggressive. I just try my best and I'm able to knock down shots."
Napier led the team in scoring (24), rebounds (8), assists (4) and steals (3) while playing 42 minutes. The Huskies needed every last one.
Due to a dreadful start, UConn trailed 27-15 at the break, scoring its fewest points in a half (15) since managing just nine against UMass in 2002. They shot an ugly 5-for-27 from the field.
"It was kind of embarrassing," junior Tyler Olander said. "We haven't played in Gampel in about a month and to come out in front of our fans and play like that, we're lucky they stayed for the second half."
To start the second half, the Huskies played with more energy, attacked the basket and sped up the game. They equaled their first-half point total in the first 3:10, going on a 15-2 spurt. Sophomore Ryan Boatright (17 points) hit a 3-pointer to hand UConn a 30-29 lead.
It was a back-and-forth battle from there, as neither team led by more than three points until overtime.
The Huskies appeared on the verge of victory in regulation when Napier made two free throws with 40 seconds left for a 51-50 lead. But, following a South Florida turnover by Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (22 points), Boatright hit just one of two free throws, leaving an opening.
South Florida (10-11, 1-8) point guard Anthony Collins blew by Boatright for the game-tying layup with 11.7 second remaining.
Following a timeout, Boatright found Napier up top but his long range 3-pointer bounced out at the buzzer.
The miss just gave Napier another opportunity to be the Big Shot Artist and he delivered in overtime.
"I love those moments," Napier said. "I always tell myself I can't live with myself if I'm not the guy that took the last shot."
Now UConn heads out on the road for two games, visiting St. John's Wednesday and Seton Hall Sunday. The Huskies will need to play better to win those games.
But no matter the circumstances and despite their flaws, it's a safe bet they'll find a way to remain in the hunt.
"It's just a wonderful team," Ollie said. "It's a team that takes you on some rides, but they eventually pull it together. Once again, they came out on the winning side. It's just the heart that they show."