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Maybe it’s time to start thinking about UConn junior Shabazz Napier as a worthy Big East player-of-the-year candidate.
Napier has an uncanny ability to deliver whenever his team needs him. And his teammates respond to him.
“They feed off him and feed off his energy,” coach Kevin Ollie said.
Napier did it again Sunday in a 78-67 win over Seton Hall, scoring 18 of his 22 points in the second half and also finished with nine assists, a career-high six steals and four rebounds while playing 39 minutes.
“He realizes when we need him and he just steps up,” R.J. Evans ofSalemsaid.
UConn improved to 16-6 overall and 6-4 in the Big East. The Huskies are one of four teams with four league losses.
Marquette(8-2), Syracuse(8-2) and Georgetown(7-3) are ahead of the pack.
Here’s a post-game breakdown:
-- Evans, a Norwich Free Academy graduate, had one of his best Big East games. He provided a spark off the bench, finishing with six points and two rebounds in 13 minutes.
He hadn’t had more than four points since scoring nine against Fordham on Dec. 21.
“Coach Ollie just gave me confidence and told me to attack,” Evans said. “He put confidence in me and I just took what the defense gave me.”
Ollie appreciated the fact that Evans attacked the basket.
“R.J. does a great job,” Ollie said. “I put the word professional around his name because he’s always ready to play… He did a remarkable job attacking the rim and got some easy baskets for us.”
-- In the days leading up to the game, Ollie complained about the high number of three-pointers that his team has taken in the last two games. The Huskies attempted 45.
Against Seton Hall, they took 14, making five.
-- UConn out-scored Seton Hall from the foul line, 21-6. The Huskies converted 21 of 23 and the Pirates just 6-for-17.
“We had the right people taking them,” Ollie said.
Sophomore Ryan Boatright made all 10 attempts from the line. Napier went 5-for-6.
-- The road trip’s most valuable player might be Scott Kirkpatrick.
He’s the UConn team bus driver. He had to maneuver through the snow to get the Huskies to New Jersey on Saturday night. The trip took five hours and they finally arrived about 1 a.m.
At one point, the bus got stuck in a hotel parking lot in Hartford. The Huskies enjoyed their down time, playing in the snow.
“We had a little fun,” Evans said. “Then coach said to get back on the bus before you do something stupid.”
Napier and freshman Omar Calhoun wrestled in the snow. Napier declared himself the winner of the bout.
“I snuck up on Omar…,” Napier said. “Then he tried to slam me and it wasn’t happening.”
-- For the first time, Napier talked about sitting out the first six plus minutes of the loss at St. Johns Wednesday. He was punished for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
It was a communication issue, according to Napier.
“I felt like I let the team down,” Napier said.
Napier more than made up for his mistake with Sunday’s terrific performance.
-- The game featured two big runs.
The Pirates had a 16-0 spurt that helped erase a 13-point deficit late the first half.
The Huskies took the lead for good with a 28-8 run.
-- An active and opportunistic defense sparked the Huskies in the second half. They forced 16 turnovers overall, including 10 after intermission.
The backcourt of Napier and Boatright combined for 10 of the team’s 13 steals.
Seton Hall shot 44 percent after intermission.
-- Napier and Boatright combined for the play of the game.
On a breakaway, Napier tossed the ball off the backboard and a trailing Boatright dunked it home.
When asked if Ollie approved of the showboat play, Boatright replied: “He’s okay with what we do as long as we complete the play.”
Ollie said: “It’s something I wouldn’t do, but I’m fine with it.”
-- The Huskies improved to 5-0 against Big East teams with losing records.
-- UConn had 16 turnovers, one shy of tying the season high.
-- Up next: UConn hosts Syracuse on Wednesday in Hartford.
Today’s American Athletic Conference Championship semifinal doubleheader is underway here at the XL Center in Hartford. A crowd in the 12,000-13,000 range is expected for the UConn-Tulsa game. Tip-off time is 5 p.m.