Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
After Clutch Foul Shots, Napier Shares Moment With Mom
HOUSTON — With 2 seconds remaining in the national semifinals at Reliant Stadium, UConn freshman Shabazz Napier stepped to the free throw line with the game, and the season, in the balance.
And what did he see?
The face of his mother, Carmen Velasquez, etched in worry.
“She was real scared,” Napier, a reserve freshman point guard, said after UConn beat Kentucky, 56-55, to advance to Monday’s national championship game against Butler.
After committing a costly turnover just seconds before, Napier proceeded to grab a clutch defensive rebound off of DeAndre Liggins‘ missed 3-pointer and was then fouled by Terrence Jones.
Stepping to the line in such a big moment is something kids across generations dream of.
Napier himself grew up with those same kinds of dreams, but said he wasn’t scared, even as it took him “a long time” to step to the line with UConn ahead 54-52.
“I went up there with a lot of confidence and I was telling myself, ‘If I knock these two down, I’m going to feel better for me,'” he said. “I didn’t want to lose it for me.”
Then he calmly proceeded to make both foul shots to essentially ice the game and give UConn a 56-52 lead.
Brandon Knight hit a meaningless 3-pointer at the buzzer for the game’s final points.
Afterward, Napier walked down the steps to the floor and shared a tender moment with his mother, a single parent who has raised three children, with 19-year-old Shabazz the youngest.
“After when I went to go hug her, it was tears of joy and I never really felt that from my mom before,” Napier said. “Especially in such a big stage, she’s never really been here. For her to be feeling that way for me, I’m a proud son right now.”
He added: “After I made it I was ecstatic. I was happy. I felt like I redeemed myself and I helped my team out.”
Redemption was in order after Napier dribbled into the Kentucky defense and lost the ball on the perimeter with UConn up 54-52 and 16.6 seconds remaining. Knight dove on the loose ball to give the Wildcats a chance to tie or win the game.
Instead of pouting or losing his composure, the freshman told his coach during the ensuing timeout not to worry.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I’ll make it up next play,'” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said.
And on the next play, Liggins’ miss, Napier grabbed the rebound.
“I seen him shoot it and I seen it was kind of short…and I jumped up and grabbed it,” Napier said.
Kemba Walker has been the engine that has driven the UConn train to 10 straight postseason victories. Again, he was terrific with 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Napier finished with just four points on 1 of 7 shooting, but his performance was critical in propelling UConn into the national championship game. On top of the foul shots, he scored on a layup to complete a 6-0 UConn run that put the Huskies up 54-48 with 2:21 remaining.
“I thought Shabazz missed shots but played terrific,” Calhoun said.
The Huskies now have a chance to win their third title (1999, 2004) while Butler is seeking its first after losing last year’s final to Duke.
UConn assistant Andre LaFleur said Napier may not fully appreciate the significance of the moment for years to come.
“I mean, this is probably as big a night as the championship game,” LaFleur said. “More people are watching tonight and for him to have the opportunity as a freshman coming in, a guy that was going to be in high school [this] year, a guy that is very close with his mother.
“For him to do that, it’s a special moment that even though he thought about it tonight, he won’t even really feel it until years from now.”
For now, Napier was just happy to share the moment with his mom.
“She raised me by herself,” he said. “It was tough, but at the end of the day she got a great kid out of me.”
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
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.