ARLINGTON, Texas – For all the talk about Kentucky’s fabulous freshman and one-and-doners, it was a senior – a guy who could have left early and stayed – who was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.
Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier displayed all the savvy and leadership Kentucky lacked in crucial moments while leading the Huskies to a 60-54 win Monday night at AT&T Stadium.
"It’s not the Shabazz Show,"Napier said. "No, I don’t need to get recognized. They [teammates] understand that. It’s the University of Connecticut Huskies. We went out there and proved it."
Napier joins former UConn great Kemba Walker (2011), Memphis’ Derrick Rose (2008) and Indiana State’s Larry Bird (1979) as the only players to score 125 points, grab 25 rebounds and hand out 25 assists in a single NCAA Tournament.
"Hell of a player,"said Ryan Boatright, Napier’s backcourt mate. "Great teammate. Great leader. He’s my brother, man. I love him."
In the title game, Napier finished with a game-high 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting. He scored the bulk of his points in the first half while UConn built as much as 15-point lead.
In the second half, Napier scored just seven points but all of them were in pressure situations.
After Kentucky had narrowed UConn’s lead to 37-26, Napier hit two free throws to give the Huskies some breathing room.
Then Napier hit a bucket with 10:56 left to push UConn’s lead back to 48-39.
Napier finished his scoring by hitting a 3-pointer with 6:50 left to stop an 8-0 Kentucky run, a run that saw UConn’s lead shrink to 48-47. Kentucky never got any closer.
"He made that dagger play,"Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "One point game, he makes that three."
But Napier’s second half wasn’t merely about scoring. It was about maintaining poise and possessions against a Kentucky squad accustomed to making lightning-fast comebacks.
Napier was a wizard Monday night at making no-look passes to open teammates, who in turn seemed to always know where to find him when they got in trouble. It was that kind of familiarity that gave Connecticut its edge over the much younger Kentucky squad.
"He impacted the game,"Calipari said. "Terrific player. He has a swagger about him. And he deserves it. He did enough for them to win the game."
Napier’s game was also about the defense he and Boatright played, affecting Kentucky’s ability to pick-and-roll. And it was about Napier and Boatright’s quickness getting into the lane and wearing down the Wildcats.
"You prepare yourselves for these moments,"Napier said, crediting the training he and Boatright do. "Today was just up and down, up and down…Them guys got a little winded and we just kind of took advantage of it."
It was also about hitting clutch free throws. Napier contributed two of UConn’s perfect 10-of-10 while Kentucky sputtered at the line with 13-of-24.
"[He’s] just whatever you want as a point guard, a winner,"UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "If we needed him to lead us in rebounds, he did that. I mean, if we needed him to score, he did that."
Napier pondered leaving UConn before the 2012-13 season when the program was suspended from postseason play for academic shortcomings.
Napier said he stayed because he promised his mother he would finish his education. During seventh-seeded UConn’s unlikely run through the NCAA Tournament, it was obvious that loyalty to his teammates was a big factor in Napier’s decision to stay.
"When you prevent us from going to the postseason and it wasn’t our fault, we worked since that day on,"said Napier, who was a freshman when UConn won the title in 2011. "Coach Ollie told us this is going to be a two-year plan, and since that day on we believed."