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Senior Shabazz Napier became the first UConn basketball player in five years to win a conference player of the year award on Wednesday.
Napier received the American Athletic Conference's top player honor during an awards luncheon at the Gibson Guitar Factory in Memphis. Hasheem Thabeet is the last Husky to claim the prize, sharing the Big East award with Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair in 2009.
He learned that he won on Sunday.
"I was just surprised," Napier said. "Coach (Kevin) Ollie called me and I was just waking up."
During his acceptance speech, Napier paid a heart-felt tribute to his mother, Carmen Velasquez, who was in the audience.
"I want to thank my mother for all the sacrifices she made to better my life," Napier said. "As a single mother with three children growing up in the inner city, she had all the excuses and reasons to give up, but never did."
Napier also thanked a long list of people, including the AAC coaches, his teammates, his coaching staff, team trainer James Doran, strength and conditioning coach Travis Illian and the team managers.
"I know this is an individual award, but my teammates would be the first to tell you that I have no interest in individual accolades," Napier said, "because I know nothing is done without them. … I'd rather our team be No. 1 than myself."
Napier beat out Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick and Louisville's Russ Smith in a tight player of the year race.
He leads the Huskies in scoring (17.8 points), rebounding (6.0), assists (5.2), steals (1.8) and minutes played (34.8).
"It's just remarkable the things that he does on a day-to-day basis…," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I couldn't ask for a better leader and a better point guard than Shabazz Napier."
Kilpatrick, who received the sportsmanship award, didn't hide his disappointment about failing to win the player of the year.
"Of course, there's some type of disappointment," Kilpatrick said. "You've got to use it as motivation. It's going to be 20 times worse for a lot of people now."
Other AAC award winners:Cincinnati's Mick Cronin, coach;Memphis forward Austin Nichols, rookie;Cincinnati's Justin Jackson, defender; Michael Dixon, Jr., Memphis, sixth man; Temple's Jimmy McDonnell, scholar-athlete; Louisville's Montrezl Harrell, most improved.
Napier also was named to the United States Basketball Writers Association All-American first team on Wednesday. Smith also was on the first team and Kilpatrick made second team.
UConn opens the AAC tournament on Thursday, facing Memphis in the quarterfinals at approximately 9:30 p.m. at FedExForum.
Check out the attached video to hear more from Napier about his award.
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.