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Napier cements spot in UConn lore with second title

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Updated 12 months ago on
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ARLINGTON, Texas — With all due respect to Ray Allen, Donyell Marshall, et al, Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier carved his face on the Mount Rushmore of Huskies basketball on Monday night.

Napier joined an elite class of Connecticut stars Monday: seniors who led the Huskies to national titles, helping the program stay a perfect 4-0 in NCAA Tournament championship games.

Richard Hamilton did it. Emeka Okafor did it. Kemba Walker did, and now Napier has done it. All were named Most Outstanding Players of the tournament.

To grasp the team’s title and his MOP award, Napier scored 22 points, grabbed six rebounds and added three assists and three steals as Connecticut held off Kentucky 60-54 at AT&T Stadium.

“Just whatever you want as a point guard,” Connecticut second-year coach Kevin Ollie said of Napier. “If we needed him to lead us in rebounds, he did that. If we needed him to score, he did that. He’s just a remarkable young man.”

And when Connecticut’s championship celebration erupted, it was Napier who put everything in perspective. He said after a 2012-13 season in which the Huskies were banned from postseason play, the current Connecticut players were that much more motivated this season.

“Ladies and gentleman, you are looking at the hungry Huskies,” Napier said. “This is what happens.”

In the postgame press conference, Napier explained his view that the current Connecticut players were punished last season for others’ mistakes.

“We’re hungry,” Napier said. “And when you prevent us from going to the postseason and it wasn’t our fault, we worked since that day on. I told myself that, if I was on that podium, I was going to say that. We worked so hard for this.”

Two nights after Connecticut made a statement that it wasn’t a one-man team predicated on Napier — junior forward DeAndre Daniels scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to lead the Huskies over top-seeded Florida in a national semifinal — Napier carried the load in the title game.

It was Napier hitting deep 3-pointers. Napier getting to the lane on offense and pestering the Wildcats on defense. And it was Napier with the ball in his hands at the most critical moments for Connecticut.

With Kentucky trailing by one, Napier hit the deep 3-pointer that Wildcats coach John Calipari will remember.

“He has a swagger about him and deserves it,” Calipari said. “He did enough for them to win the game. He made that dagger play. One-point game, he makes that 3.”

Connecticut needed every bit of Napier’s swagger mixed with the calm of a player competing in his second national final. As a freshman, Napier played 27 role-player minutes, scoring four points, grabbing four rebounds, dishing out two assists and coming up with two steals when the Huskies defeated Butler for the national championship three years ago.

This time, Napier took the starring role from the beginning. He scored 15 points in the first half as Connecticut surged ahead.

The Huskies appeared to be in complete control when senior forward Niels Giffey stepped to the free-throw line and knocked down a pair to put the Huskies ahead 30-15 with 5:59 left in the first half.

However, Kentucky came alive at that point as guard James Young hit two 3-pointers and guard Aaron Harrison threw down a dunk, igniting a surge. Even Napier’s 3-pointer from 10 feet beyond the arc didn’t slow down the Wildcats much.

Kentucky finished the first half on a 16-5 run to cut Connecticut’s lead to 35-31 and serve notice that the Wildcats weren’t going away without a fight.

Napier was up for the fight, though, as he did the grittier things needed in the final 20 minutes. He scored seven in the second half, but he pulled down four rebounds and dished out two assists. The second of those dishes was absolutely vital.

With the Huskies leading by four and less than three minutes left, Connecticut appeared to be squeezing the shot clock and hoping the Wildcats’ sharpshooter, Aaron Harrison, wouldn’t show up to hit a fourth consecutive game-winning 3-pointer.

Instead of watching the clock, Napier threw an alley-oop pass to Daniels, which Daniels caught, came down and then put in for a six-point lead with 2:47

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