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Buffalo, N.Y. – So many times this season senior star Shabazz Napier has tried to deflect the spotlight and shine it on his UConn basketball teammates.
He prefers to share the credit for the team’s success.
Finally, he got his wish in Saturday night’s NCAA tournament East Region third-round game against second-seeded Villanova at the First Niagara Center.
With Napier battling foul trouble and a late game injury, his fellow Huskies admirably filled in, helping send them to the Sweet 16 with a 77-65 victory.
Seventh-seeded UConn (28-8) will play today’s Iowa State-North Carolina winner on Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Napier delivered the vital blow, scoring 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, but the Huskies wouldn’t have advanced without a complete team effort. He played just 25 minutes, including only eight in the first half.
“It was a big moment when I got my second foul, but we didn’t skip a beat,” Napier said. “That just shows the maturity of this team. … I get recognized for a lot of things, but everyone know there’s no ‘I’ in team, and they proved that today.
“… Everybody stepped up, and that’s what they do. Like I’ve always said, I’m nothing without these guys, and today was a big show of that.”
Juniors Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels each scored 11 points while senior Niels Giffey did the dirty work under the basket, grabbing a career-high 11 rebounds. UConn’s reserves collectively played perhaps their best game this season, outscoring Villanova’s bench, 26-5.
When Napier sat, freshman Terrence Samuel took over, scoring a career-high 11 points. Graduate student Lasan Kromah, a defensive specialist, hit double figures (12 points) for the first time since Feb. 9.
“I just want to come into the game and be a game-changer and bring the intensity on the offensive and defensive end,” Samuel said.
The Huskies played tenacious defense, forcing the Wildcats (29-5) into 16 turnovers and an icy 35 percent from the field, and that allowed them to rebound from a 10-point first half deficit with Napier on the bench.
“With Shabazz out, guys stepped up, and that’s what this team is all about…,” coach Kevin Ollie said. “Everybody talks about we’re not deep, we’re not this and we’re not that, but we’ve got heart.
“Every guy that comes in on the court, they stay positive and 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.”
There were a couple key stretches during the game between old Big East rivals.
First, Napier sat out the final 12:09 of the first half after picking up his second foul. A seven-point deficit quickly turned into 10 (19-9).
Ollie made a few changes, bringing in Samuel and mixing in a zone defense. UConn cranked up the defensive intensity and bolted on a 16-1 run to take a 25-20 lead. Villanova went 11:25 without a field goal and shot 7-for-23 from the field in the first half.
Boatright took over the leadership reins.
“I just told the guys that we had to come together and we had to take care of the ball and play good defense to get to the second half so we could get Shabazz back,” Boatright said. “The guys that came in and played in that first half, they stepped up tremendously.”
With Napier out, UConn outscored Villanova, 16-8, and took a 25-24 lead into halftime.
“That was disappointing,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “In a game like that, you’ve got to take advantage of that, which we didn’t.”
A rested Napier returned to start the second half, and that spelled bad news for the Wildcats. He borrowed back the spotlight from his teammates.
At times, it turned into a 3-point shooting contest and that temporarily favored the Wildcats, who came in averaging nine per game from beyond the arc. But they made just 11 of 31 overall.
Trailing 36-35, the Huskies took charge, going on a decisive 16-4 run. Daniels hit a driving basket to put them on top for good with 14:32 left.
Napier heated up, hitting a jumper for a 41-36 edge. But he sat out two more minutes after earning his third foul.
It didn’t matter. His teammates picked up the slack.
Napier returned and fired in two straight long 3-pointers for a 51-40 edge at the nine minute mark.
Every time Villanova threatened to climb back into the game, the Huskies answered.
Still, they had to endure one more brief stretch without Napier, who limped off after Darrun Hilliard kneed him in the shin area with 4:01 left and UConn leading 56-49. He received treatment on the bench.
It didn’t look good for Napier.
“The pain was excruciating,” he said. “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 it was fine and put some biofreeze on it.
“He told me to mentally stay strong. Physically, everything felt like it was in the right place. It was just a deep bruise. … I was ready to go.”
Napier sat out for only 37 seconds and made a major impact when he returned, flipping in a tough driving layup for a 60-51 lead with 2:19 remaining.
From there, the Huskies hit their free throws to close out the win and move on to the Sweet 16 for the 17th time in program history, and the first time since 2011.
“It’s always good to go back to the Garden,” Boatright said. “It just feels good to go through to the Sweet Sixteen.”