HOUSTON -- It only took the officials a few minutes to double-check the monitors and ensure they had the appropriate number of ticks left on the game clock.
The few minutes felt like two hours for Shabazz Napier, who wandered around the Reliant Stadium court, glancing here and there.
First he looked into the stands behind the bench where he spied the anxious face of his mother, Carmen Velasquez.
“She looked so scared,’’ Napier said.
And then he purposefully avoided teammate Alex Oriakhi.
“He always makes me laugh and that was absolutely not the time to laugh,’’ Napier said.
No, it was a time for a lot of other things. It was time for Napier to exorcise the ghost of a March game that still haunted him -- one where he missed a free throw that would have allowed Connecticut to avoid overtime against Syracuse in the Big East Tournament. It was time for him to redeem what looked like a death blow of a turnover just seconds before. Ultimately, it was time to win a game.
That’s an awful lot of stuff swarming through the head of a 19-year-old who was about to make the biggest shots of his young life in front of 75,000 of his closest friends.
But Napier is no longer the kid he was when he came to Connecticut.
With 1.7 seconds standing between him and UConn’s shot at a national championship, Napier calmly swished his two free throws and handed the Huskies the 56-55 win over Kentucky.
“I dream about that situation all the time, but honestly when it came around I was a little scared,’’ Napier said. “I didn’t want to lose this chance for the team.’’
Butler may have cornered the market on the improbability meter in this national championship game, but it is equally unlikely that Napier in this game would come away the hero.
Though his defense on Brandon Knight was sensational -- Knight shot 6-of-23 -- Napier's offense was abysmal. He hit just one field goal, missed all four of his 3-pointers and, only seconds before he became the hero, Napier was headed for a goat costume. With Connecticut up two and the clock draining below 20 seconds, Napier tried to dribble to his right and split two Kentucky defenders. Instead the ball bounced off his foot, and in the wild scramble, Knight scooped it up and Terrence Jones quickly signaled for the timeout.
“It was absolutely the worst feeling in the world,’’ Napier said. “I felt like I let my team down.’’
So there were the Wildcats, the team that twice in this NCAA tournament won games on buzzerbeaters, with the ball and 16.6 seconds left to figure out another hero finish.
“I was so concerned during the timeout that he’d be so concerned about losing the basketball, dribbling into traffic,’’ Jim Calhoun said. “He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I’ll make it up next play.’’’
He proved prophetic. DeAndre Liggins' 3-pointer from the wing clanked off the front of the rim, and in the battle to grab the ball, it was Napier who came down the winner. He grabbed the rebound and waited until Jones fouled him.
“Usually I’d look to get the ball to Kemba,’’ Napier said. “But this time I just held onto the ball.’’
That sounds almost like heresy. In this postseason if there is anyone who should have the ball in an endgame, Walker is atop the list.
But the junior had no problem watching Napier walk to the line.
The Huskies are playing for a national championship not just because Walker has been unbeatable. They’re playing because a freshman class has grown into its own and become every bit as critical to UConn’s success as their junior guard.
When Napier is on the court and handling the ball, Walker is far more effective. In the past four games, Walker shoots 48 percent when Napier is in the game compared to 32 percent when he is not.
Walker’s confidence has spread like wildfire to the rookies, imbuing them with the same sense of self he possesses so effortlessly.
“I knew he’d make those, absolutely,’’ Walker said. “Shabazz is a tough kid and he’s grown up big time this year. I had no doubt he was making them.’’
Neither did Napier. After he looked away from Oriakhi -- “Kemba said 'don’t make him laugh,'’’ -- Napier smiled, soaked it all in. The atmosphere, his mom’s face, his own need for redemption. He collected himself, exhaled and put the game in the books.
“I just knew I wouldn’t miss,’’ Napier said. “I thought, ‘I have a chance to redeem myself. Why not at the free throw line? Why not me?'”