By Dom Amore, Hartford Courant
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Shabazz Napier‘s first thoughts are always for his teammates, his team, the final score.
And in his performance Thursday night, with its hits, misses and flaws, all of that showed. But when it was over, when UConn had outlasted as tough an NCAA Tournament opponent as it could have drawn, Napier saw kindred spirits in the other uniform.
He went over to St. Joseph’s seniors, Langston Galloway and Ron Roberts Jr., to offer his admiration.
“I didn’t know those guys until today,” said Napier, who scored 24 hard-earned points in the Huskies’ 89-81 overtime victory over St. Joe’s, enough to advance to the third round, “but when you play basketball with that kind of competitiveness, you earn a lot of respect. I’m passionate for the game, and I could see it in those guys’ eyes.”
St. Joseph, the 10th seed, outmaneuvered the Huskies for much of the game, executing coach Phil Martelli’s motion offense. The Hawks led by 10 in the first half, and by five with 5:24 to go, and although Napier was struggling to make a shot — he was 7-for-22 from the floor — the Huskies grappled back.
With 39 seconds left, freshman Amida Brimah grabbed the rebound after Napier missed a shot and put it in, drew a foul and made the free throw with the poise of a veteran to tie the game at 70.
UConn’s defense then forced a shot-clock violation, but Napier missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer and it went to OT. Both teams were in foul trouble, but Martelli had barely used his bench. Then when Halil Kanacevic, who had 12 points, seven rebounds and five assists, fouled out 1:13 into the OT period, UConn finally had the upper hand and seized control of the game and avoided an “upset” on a day in which there were several throughout the country.
DeAndre Daniels completed a three-point play on Kanacevic’s fifth foul to give UConn a 73-70 lead — its largest lead of the game to that point. Napier scored nine points in overtime, and the Huskies spaced it out.
“If anybody deserved to keep on playing, certainly these guys did,” Martelli said of his team. “Somebody had to lose and, unfortunately, it was us.”
Like UConn, St. Joe’s has a group of seniors who saw the program through tough times. This was, in fact, their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and it proved to be their final college game. Galloway scored 25 points, and Roberts had 15.
“They’re seniors, and this is it,” Napier said. “When you work hard for something and it goes down the drain, it saddens me. I’m happy I’m on the other end. I just wanted to go over and show my respect and tell those guys they did a tremendous job. Sometimes you fight, and you don’t win the battle.”
For the Huskies (27-8), the fight goes on — they will play Villanova or Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday, time to be determined.
“We played hard, we played with grit, we played with ‘grind,'” coach Kevin Ollie said. “At the end of the day, we wanted to outwork our opponent. It took a little longer than I thought, but we got it done in the end.”
The Hawks hit 14 of 25 shots in the first half, consistently finding the open man on the baseline for backdoor dunks and layups. The Huskies stayed in the game with six three-pointers, the last by Ryan Boatright at the end of the half to cut St. Joe’s lead to 40-35.
UConn’s defense was much tighter in the second half, and it forced nine turnovers. Several times the Huskies surged in the second half, but could not get over the top. They briefly took a 55-53 lead on Napier’s three-point play with 9:14 to go, but Langston and Kanacevic, a unique “point-forward” player, kept responding, as did the Huskies.
“The will that this team has is amazing,” Daniels said, “and to just fight — we never gave up.”
But when Chris Wilson made two free throws with 49 seconds to go, the Hawks led 70-67 and UConn’s seniors were the ones in danger of seeing their careers end. Brimah, playing with four fouls, saved the day with the big put-back over Kanacevic.
“I did a horrible job of boxing him out,” Kanacevic said. “I let [my teammates] down.”
Brimah, an exuberant, often mistake-prone freshman, stepped to the line and tied the game.
“He showed a lot of maturity and heart for that possession,” Boatright said. “Man, for him to make that play, just to go to the line with swag — like he knew he was going to make it.”
Daniels scored 18 points, Boatright 17, Niels Giffey 10 for UConn, but Brimah’s nine points probably saved the season. Napier, who had five points at halftime, scored 10 in the second half and nine in the OT.
“My teammates helped me,” Napier said. “They willed me like they’ve been doing throughout the whole season, they were telling me, ‘Shabazz, keep going, keep shooting.'”
Said Ollie: “I’ve got so much respect for their players and for coach Martelli. That was a very, very tough team we just beat. They’re not a 10 seed, and I don’t think we’re a seven seed. … Someone had to lose; I’m just glad we came out on top.”