Napier Overcomes ‘Excruciating’ Pain, Leads UConn to Sweet 16 and Garden Party
BUFFALO — The time Shabazz Napier spent grimacing in pain on the bench only seemed like an eternity to UConn fans.
In actuality, UConn’s star guard only missed 37 seconds of game action after a leg injury he called “excruciating.”
As soon as he re-entered the game, Napier swooped toward the basket with the ball and flung up a layup high off the window to put the Huskies up by nine points.
When it was over, Napier had another brilliant game with 25 points, hitting 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, 5 rebounds and 3 assists as No. 7 UConn ousted No. 2 Villanova, 77-65, to propel the Huskies to the Sweet 16 of the East Region at Madison Square Garden. UConn will meet the North Carolina-Iowa State winner on Friday in New York.
“Napier was just awesome,” said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose team finished at 29-5, leaving Creighton as the lone Big East team in the tournament.
He was awesome despite getting saddled with two first-half fouls and then sustaining the injury in the second half.
“I was trying to get open for the ball and I think [Darrun] Hilliard was playing me aggressively and he kicked me or kneed in my shin area,” Napier said. “The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t really put pressure on it.”
Napier, who combined to score 49 points in two games here, including 40 after the first halves, credited UConn trainer James Doran with spraying the pain-relieving gel Biofreeze on his lower leg.
Lasan Kromah added 12 points in the win and Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels had 11 apiece.
Now UConn is headed back to the Garden, where they’ve won so many big games, including five in five days back in 2011 en route to the Big East and NCAA championships when another gutty UConn guard by the name of Kemba Walker led the way.
“It’s exciting,” Napier told SNY. “We haven’t been in the Garden since the beginning of the season and we’re not able to play in the Garden for our [American Athletic Conference] tournament because we’re no longer in the Big East. But it’s just exciting to be back in the Garden.”
The UConn faithful thought so, too.
In the final seconds, as the Huskies made a parade of foul shots to ice the win, their fans chanted, “MSG, MSG.”
UConn has three players with New York City roots — Terrence Samuel, Omar Calhoun and Kentan Facey — and Samuel played as if he wanted to get back to the Garden.
He scored seven of his 11 points in the second half, including two clutch free throws with Napier on the bench during his injury.
“He understands he’s a big role member on this team and today it didn’t shock me one bit,” Napier said of Samuel. It was beautiful. Terrence, nothing he did today shocked us. He can take over in practice anytime.”
Now Samuel gets to play a Sweet 16 game in his hometown, and maybe one more for a shot at the Final Four
“Oh, it’s going to be a great feeling,” said Samuel, a Brooklyn native. “I get to see my mom, my brothers, my friends from high school, my coaches. Just hopefully I perform the same way when I go out in front of my friends and family and we get the win as well so we can advance in the tournament.”
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Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.