Kevin Duffy: A lot of bad, but Napier again rescues UConn
Published 8:10 pm, Sunday, February 3, 2013
STORRS -- For much of Sunday's eyesore at Gampel Pavlion, Kevin Ollie wore his signature scowl.
If you've caught any UConn games this year, you know the look. He appears on the verge of tears, his eyes squinty and his mouth arched. You've seen it before.
And you've seen this, too: Ollie turned that frown upside down, as a grade-school teacher would say, and was able to chuckle about a game that looked, for a while, like grade-school hoops.
"We're finding different ways," Ollie said following UConn's 69-64 overtime win over South Florida. "But I always like the left-hand column going up high. (A record of) 15-5, we'll take that."
Indeed, the Huskies are getting creative with their winning formula. On Thursday against Providence, UConn was outrebounded by 31, a number that Ryan Boatright deemed "ridiculous." On Sunday against South Florida, the Huskies shot 29.8 percent -- an equally ridiculous stat -- and mustered just 15 points in a first half marred with lowlights on both sides: South Florida's Jawanza Poland, left alone on the right wing with time to thin, launched a brick that bounced off the rim and backboard. Shortly after, as UConn's Leon Tolksdorf squared himself for a wide-open 3-pointer, someone on the USF bench shouted "Shooter!" Almost on cue, Tolksdorf sailed the shot wide right of the basket. Late in the first half, DeAndre Daniels caught the ball at the elbow, turned to the basket and bounced a pass to no one in particular. Then Boatright banked in a halfcourt shot that didn't count.
There could have been circus music playing in the background of this one.
Yes, most of it was that bad.
"It's not going to be perfect and you all knew it wasn't going to be perfect, but us getting wins is something they're learning how to do," Ollie said.
By my count, there have been four heart-pounding wins thus far: The first was against Michigan State, where the Huskies clung to a 62-60 lead and made the defensive stops and free throws to seal it. The second was against Quinnipiac, a slugfest that saw UConn hit a program-record 39 free throws and storm back from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes of regulation. The third was at Providence, where UConn shot 50 percent from the field and somehow compensated for their rebounding woes. And then there was Sunday, where UConn defended and rebounded well enough to compensate for its shooting woes.
You can't make this stuff up.
In some regard, the Huskies got lucky Sunday. If the refs blew the whistle on a Zach LeDay shot with 43 seconds remaining, maybe Ollie's frown never gets turned upside down. LeDay got mugged on that play, no doubt. Napier scooped up the ball, got fouled on a semi-break and knocked down the free throws to give UConn a late 51-50 edge.
And that was the true key to the Huskies' third straight win. Really, it's been the key all year. As UConn's winning formula gets increasingly wacky, Shabazz Napier remains the one consistent.
"Napier's expectations of himself are greater than mine," Ollie said. "And when you become a great player, that's what you do. Your expectations are greater than anyone's."
Napier poured in 25 to open the season in Germany. Against Quinnipiac, he tallied 23 of his career-high 29 in the final 3:24 of regulation and the two overtime sessions. He was quiet Thursday, yet so clutch, drilling a 3-pointer in overtime to put UConn ahead of Providence 76-74.
And Sunday, his 11 points in overtime -- his pretty stroke on a trio of cold-blooded 3s -- helped erase the ugly basketball that caused Ollie and USF coach Stan Heath to roll their eyes on separate occasions.
In UConn's four overtimes, Napier has 35 points. He's made 5-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc. He's made 18-of-20 free throws. He has seemingly rescued the Huskies whenever they've needed him.
"I love those moments," Napier said. "I always tell myself, `I can't live with myself if I'm not the guy taking those last shots.'"
Sounds awfully similar to Kemba Walker, doesn't it?
"(Walker) made it look so easy though -- especially the game-winners," Napier said. "When I look back at it, I'm just in awe. He was something else, man."
As a whole, this UConn squad hasn't made it look easy. On Thursday, a relieved Ollie opened his press conference with, "I don't know what to tell you guys." On Sunday, it was "I don't know what to say about the first half."
Ollie was stomping and scowling; UConn was misfiring on 81 percent of its shots and South Florida forward Toarlyn Fitzpatrick -- too big for the Huskies on the interior -- was busy launching from deep. By the end, the two teams had combined for an outrageous 54 3-point attempts. Minus Fitzpatrick, USF shot 14-for-46. Minus Napier, UConn was 10-for-43. Perhaps the most absurd stat: The Bulls outscored UConn in the paint 30-6.
"These last two games have been real weird games, man," Boatright said.
It's true -- to an extent. The stat sheets have been off-the-charts bizarre, yes. But Napier saving the day? That's become pretty typical around here.