- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2014

NEW YORK — It seems like a lifetime ago for Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier.

He was a freshman then, a 19-year-old kid playing and winning a national championship in 2011. Three years later, he has a new coach, Kevin Ollie. His team plays in a new league, the American Athletic Conference. And he has finally forged common ground with teammates who also stuck with the program through trying times.

The landscape Napier inhabits has changed completely with only one thing still the same: He and the Huskies are in Texas again playing for a title.

The 6-foot-1 senior, a master contortionist confident he can get a shot off against any opponent, at any time, is the leading scorer in this year’s NCAA tournament with 93 points in four games and helped No. 7 seed Connecticut to wins over St. Joseph’s, Villanova, Iowa State and Michigan State for the East Regional championship.

On Saturday evening, Napier and the Huskies (30-8) will play No. 1 seed Florida, 36-2 overall and the tournament favorite, in a national semifinal at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. It is an unlikely visit for a program that is normally used to this stage. UConn is playing in its fifth Final Four since 1999 and has won three national titles, the two most recent in Texas.

That didn’t stop senior forward Tyler Olander from planting a seed in Napier’s head: If the Huskies made it this far, then they and fellow senior Niels Giffey could be the first players in program history to win multiple championships.

“At the time when he said it, I just [said] like that’s going to be real hard, it’s going to definitely be difficult,” Napier said after his team’s 60-54 win over Michigan State on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. “And for it to be right here, for us to have the opportunity to play in the Final Four, it’s a special feeling. Of course, we didn’t want to think too far ahead.”

That’s a lesson the diminutive Napier has learned well. Some figured he’d be long gone to the NBA by now. He was on the all-rookie team in the Big East Conference as a freshman and played 27 minutes during that 2011 title game win over Butler. As a sophomore, Napier was a starter, recorded the ninth triple-double in program history and stunned Villanova with a last-second 35-foot jumper to win a road game.

But that second season things fell apart. The 2011-12 Huskies couldn’t match their predecessor, bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first round. Legendary UConn coach Jim Calhoun, a three-time cancer survivor, retired before the start of the next season.

The Huskies were also banned from playing in the postseason for one year because of NCAA sanctions related to poor academics. Napier could have turned pro or transferred right then. Instead, he stuck it out when Ollie, a 13-year NBA veteran and Connecticut alum, took over.

“My sophomore year I didn’t play the way I was supposed to,” Napier said. “I wasn’t a great leader, and I felt like I owed a lot to the university. I felt like they stayed loyal to me and I wanted to stay loyal back.”

Teammates Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb left for the NBA while Roscoe Smith (UNLV) and Alex Oriakhi (Missouri) transferred. The latter three were all starters on the national title team along with star Kemba Walker, another 6-1 scoring guard in whose shadow Napier still walks.

Walker was the engine that drove UConn to that 2011 championship with his memorable scoring binge late that season (271 points, 11 postseason games). The Huskies won five games in five days at the Big East tournament that year and the winning didn’t stop until they’d cut down the nets in Houston.

And yet, the affable Walker often endured chirping from a freshman guard who would sometimes tell him how and where to shoot. That, according to Ollie, was the brash confidence Napier needed to fight his way out of the rough Mission Hill neighborhood in Roxbury, Mass., just outside of Boston.

“[Napier] still had a little rebellion in him a little bit, wanted to do it his own way,” Ollie said.

That didn’t always play well with others, however. Once Calhoun retired, the sanctions hit and teammates fled, the load was left for Napier to carry. He would either mature or the program could implode in Ollie’s first year as head coach. And so, with nothing to play for except each other, Napier led the Huskies in points and assists and to a surprising 20-10 record last season.

With the postseason ban in place, Napier couldn’t stand to watch the tournament go on without him. A fishing fanatic, he watched the Animal Planet program “River Monsters” instead. It was his way of coping. But all along Napier was planning for his final season. This time he led Connecticut in points, assists, steals and rebounds, too. He began to make the inevitable comparisons to Walker seem reasonable.

“Oh, no, it’s fair. It’s fair. He’s that type of player,” Giffey said. “But they play in a different way. I like to compare him to Kemba in the way they think about the game. They’re different basketball players [but] they have the same mindset — the winning mindset.”

Napier averages 18.1 points per game and is tied with 6-10 forward DeAndre Daniels at 5.9 rebounds per game. He also averages 4.9 assists. He just passed NBA star Ray Allen for fourth on the all-time scoring list at Connecticut (1,925 points) and ranks second in free throws (503) and 3-pointers (254) and third in assists (637). No one has appeared in more games for the Huskies (141).

Yes, the shot selection can still drive Ollie crazy and Napier turns the ball over almost three times a game. But there is always that confidence. In a 3-for-20 rut against Villanova two years ago, Napier shook off a Wildcats game-tying layup with seconds to play, dribbled up court and calmly sank that 35-footer to win the game.

It will always be difficult for Napier to shake the label that he dominates the ball too much. “Sometimes it’s hard to figure out how not to play with the ball in your hand,” he said.

Villanova coach Jay Wright compared a sophomore Napier to former Georgetown star Allen Iverson, another 6-foot guard who was at his best with the ball in his hands. This season, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Napier scores or assists on 45 percent of UConn’s points, the most by any Final Four player since … Kemba Walker. There is that comparison again.

“[Napier] was a scorer then. Now he is a complete guard, like what we like to teach our players to be,” Wright said. “Great decision‑maker, scorer at the right time, leader, defensive player. I don’t know if a guy like him, if he would have left early [for the NBA], would have developed into as complete a player.”

It turned out that while Napier was maturing, he was also absorbing lessons. From Walker, on the court, he took a step-back pump fake that is a lock to get defenders in the air and himself to the foul line. Off the court, he eventually figured out how Walker rallied a group of disparate players together for one cause.

“The one thing about Shabazz, he had a great freshman year, too,” said former UConn star Richard Hamilton, second on that all-time scoring list, said. “He’d been on this stage. He’s played in a national championship game and played well doing it. So now it’s his team and he’s taking the young guys underneath his wing.”

From his mom, Carmen Velasquez, who raised three kids by herself in an unforgiving neighborhood, Napier learned the value of opportunity. His sister, Titana, is 28. His brother Timmie Barrows, is 26. The baby of the family, a sociology major, is just weeks away from a college degree that eludes so many in Roxbury.

Shabazz just made it a little easier for me growing up, staying focused, playing basketball, staying out the street,” Velasquez said. “He was a clown in school, but once he realized he needed to get the grades to get to the level he’s at he changed it all the way around. It’s a special thing.”

And now Napier is two wins away from another special thing. His team has already beaten Florida once this season, a thrilling game at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 2 where Napier, of course, sank the winning shot at the buzzer. The Gators haven’t lost since.

Florida is favored to take the rematch. Shabazz Napier is undaunted.

“He’s not scared to fail, and I think that’s one of his biggest attributes,” Ollie said. “He’s not scared of the moment. He’s not waiting for his giants. He’s going to meet them.”

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