Shabazz Saves The Day

NEW YORK – Trailing West Virginia by nine points with less than four minutes to play Wednesday, it was obvious Connecticut needed some good fortune to extend its stay at the Big East Conference tournament.

Actually, what UConn needed more than anything was defensive stops. Yes, stops - more than one and at least two. Three or four? Even better.

Then the Huskies had to turn those stops into points. It turns out point guard Shabazz Napier had UConn covered on all counts. In a span of one minute and 29 seconds, Napier scored nine points and had two game-changing steals that have alread become part of Big East tournament lore.

"One of the hardest things to do is get a defensive stop," Napier said. "It's a matter of pride. A lot of people don't want to do it. You can go out there and score 40 points but if you don't know how to play defense someone is going to score 40 points on you.

"If you get a defensive stop, when it happens, everyone gets going. It's like a dunk. It's one of those plays you need to have. When you realize a team can't deal with your defensive pressure and they turn the ball over, everybody gets excited."

Napier knows how to do it. And Wednesday at Madison Square Garden, he proved how exciting a great defensive moment can be – especially in March.

West Virginia (19-13) learned it all the hard way as UConn (20-12) rallied for a 71-67 overtime victory in the second round of the Big East championship. The rest of the Big East should be on notice now. The Huskies are not the same team everyone was trying to figure out just last week after that horrible loss at Providence.

By winning their seventh consecutive Big East tournament game, the Huskies advanced to the quarterfinal round and will play No. 1 seed Syracuse (30-1) in another noon start Thursday (ESPN, ESPN3D).

"One of the reasons I think we do well in tournaments is because we play with a little different attitude," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "We don't have anything to lose. We're going home. In my opinion we're going to play next week some place. But we've got a hell of a lot to gain."

And the Huskies have Napier to thank for keeping that opportunity alive. The sophomore guard finished with 26 points, four three-pointers, six assists, three blocks and three steals before fouling out with 2:35 left in overtime and the score tied at 67.

"Shabazz was saying, ‘We're not going to lose this game. We're not going to lose this game,' " forward Alex Oriakhi said. "The guys bought into that. I'm not going to lie, I looked up [down nine] and said, ‘It's getting ugly.' But we all made a promise to each other that we were going to fight to the end."

West Virginia led by as much as 11. And the lead was 63-54 when guard Darryl Bryant (20 points) hit a layup with 3:57 remaining. Napier countered with a three-pointer 20 seconds later and then hit two free throws when Jabarie Hinds fouled him with 2:48 left.

Then the fun began. Napier swiped the ball from Dominique Rutledge and converted it into a layup that pulled the Huskies within two. West Virginia called timeout, but Napier still managed to steal Gary Browne's inbound pass at midcourt. He took that in for another basket that tied the game at 63 with 2:08 left.

It was a stretch that would have made Kemba Waker grin from ear-to-ear.

"This is not Kemba Walker," Calhoun said. "He's a totally different player. In the last week that I've been around Shabazz, he's a different player than he was three weeks ago. He's not a different person, but he's found some other things – like giving himself because he has so damn much to give. And I mean that very honestly."

A layup by freshman center Andre Drummond with 1:39 left sent the game into overtime tied at 65. UConn held the Mountaineers to two points in the final 3:57. In addition to Napier's steals, UConn got big blocked shots from Oriakhi and Drummond in the last minute of regulation – two of 10 blocks by the Huskies.

Then West Virginia deflated, missing all 11 field goal attempts in overtime including five from three-point range.

The Mountaineers clobbered UConn on the boards, 47-31, and second chance points, 25-8. West Virginia scored 15 points off 13 UConn turnovers. Kevin Jones, one of the strongest candidates for Big East Player of the Year, had 25 points and 10 rebounds. There was every reason for West Virginia to win.

But Jones couldn't get his shots off when the game was on the line. Calhoun credited that to the defense of Drummond, who scored only seven points but managed to make a big impact on the game.

"For 30 minutes he didn't play very well," Calhoun said of Drummond. "He didn't compete the way I want him to compete. He's young. But with 10 minutes to go, he grew up a little bit an played a hell of a player and did a wonderful job."

Drummond said it's all part of growing up in the college game.

"If you realize you're not having a great offensive night, you've got to do other things," Drummond said. "I was getting down on myself, saying I can't score or I'm not getting the ball or not rebounding. I had to tell myself not to worry about it and lock this kid up."

There was another way Calhoun got the message across to Drummond.

"I came over to the sideline and Coach was like, ‘Don't let this kid score or else you're not going back in," Drummond said with a laugh.

"They had Andre Drummond on me, who is a total player, making it tough on me for my shots," Jones said. "Coach [Bob Huggins] ran a couple of plays for me and some of my teammates weren't able to find me in the right spots. UConn made the correct plays at the end to win the game. They played how they were supposed to."

Napier was stunned when he fouled out with the game tied at 67 in overtime. He didn't realize it was his fifth foul. But Ryan Boatright told Napier he had his back in OT. All the Huskies did.

The biggest play came with 1:05 left when Oriakhi set an enormous screen for Jeremy Lamb (22 points) and the sophomore scorer buried a three-pointer for a 70-67 lead.

"It was a crazy game, a great dogfight," Oriakhi said. "I just told [Lamb] come off me, I'm going to get you open. I told the guys if I've got to give you 50 screens to win game, that's what I'll do.

"I'm here to win and I'm glad we were able to pull out that victory."


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