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Terrence Samuel had every reason to be as nervous as a kindergartner on the first day of school Saturday night.
With senior Shabazz Napier sitting out with two fouls, coach Kevin Ollie turned to Samuel, a freshman point guard, to replace the All-American candidate about eight minutes into UConn's NCAA East Region third round game against Villanova in Buffalo, N.Y.
Talk about pressure.
Napier had some words of wisdom for the inexperienced Samuel.
"Shabazz has a lot of confidence in me," Samuel said. "As soon as he came out of the game, he said go in there and do what you do - push the ball, get layups and create for others. I feel like I did that."
Samuel responded like a postseason veteran, helping the Huskies thrive for long stretches without Napier in a 77-65 victory. Seventh-seeded UConn (28-8) advances to the Sweet Sixteen Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York where it will play third-seeded Iowa State (28-7), which beat sixth-seeded North Carolina, 85-83, on Sunday.
Without Samuel's key contribution, UConn's season would likely be over. He had career-highs in points (11) and minutes (21). Showing poise beyond his years, he didn't commit a turnover and added an assist, rebound and steal as well as playing tough defense. He calmly made seven of eight free throws.
"He was great defensively," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "He got up on our guards and pressured our guards. He had good size. He drove the ball. He was good. He made free throws. I thought he did a great job making up for Napier."
No one inside the UConn locker room was surprised by Samuel's fine all-around play.
Napier has watched Samuel, a 6-foot-4 guard, experience growth spurts throughout the year. Samuel worked hard while patiently waiting his turn. He didn't earn a single second in 10 games this season but gradually fought his way into the rotation.
"We all stay ready for the big moments…," Samuel said. "I keep working in practice on just getting better, learning from Shabazz and Boat. I learn from them every single day. They don't give me anything easy. They go at me and make me a better player, so I appreciate them for that."
Both Napier and junior Ryan Boatright have helped keep Samuel mentally and physically prepared for his opportunities.
"He just matured so much," Napier said. "As a freshman coming in, in high school you play so many minutes. The biggest thing is you want to do the same when you get to college, but when you have great guards in front of you, it's hard.
"He kept his head. He understands he has a big role on this team. … Nothing he did (Saturday) shocked any of us. He does that all the time."
Still, there's a big difference between taking over a practice scrimmage and playing well in an NCAA tournament game. A season's worth of practices and preparation kicked in for Samuel, who scored four points and added an assist during a pivotal 16-1 run in the first half with Napier on the bench.
From his pregame warm-up, Samuel knew he could be a game-changer.
"I was locked in," Samuel said. "I said I'm going to have a great game because the last three games I haven't been producing off the bench and I was very disappointed with myself.
"I said I'm going to come in and do what I'm used to doing, and I feel like I did that."
The Huskies will improve their odds of winning Friday if their reserves can be effective. They held a decisive 26-5 edge in bench points against Villanova.
A Brooklyn native who attended Victory Collegiate High School, Samuel is thrilled about playing an NCAA tourney game in his backyard at Madison Square Garden.
"It's a great, great feeling," Samuel said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere. … It's going to be packed. I get to see my friends and family. We're just going to take care of business. We do that every time we go to the Garden."
Ollie predicts a bright future for Samuel.
"Terrence is maturing and he's a great competitor, but he's also a great teammate," Ollie said. "He's going to be a great basketball player for us."