Napier relishes return to game he loves

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- It was time to celebrate, to high-five and chest bump with his teammates. The game was over, the end a mere formality of nine more ticks on the clock.

But instead of his celebrating his moment, the 89-81 overtime win, UConn guard Shabazz Napier walked over to the Saint Joseph’s bench and hugged seniors Langston Galloway and Ron Roberts as they exited for the final time in their college careers.

He didn’t know them before Thursday night, before the Huskies and the Hawks faced one another in an NCAA tournament second-round game.

But 45 minutes later, they had Napier’s respect and he wanted them to know it.

"I’m passionate for the game, and I seen it in their eyes," he said. "I would have loved for them to do the same thing for me. When you work so hard for something and it goes down the drain, it saddens you."

On Wednesday night, Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli described his job as "this is what I do. It is not who I am." For Napier, the line is a little blurrier. Basketball is what he does, but it also is so much of who he is.

When he talks about the game, he speaks with almost a reverence.

He loves the game. Not just the winning of it -- though he’s certainly a big fan of that, too -- but just playing it, the sweat and the battles, the grit and the grind. He talks about basketball almost with a reverence, and plays with only one gear -- all out.

And so imagine then how he felt last year. The NCAA tournament went on without UConn. Chastised for poor academic performance, it was banned from competition.

It was like taking air out of Napier’s lungs.

"I forgot what it was like and then I stepped on the court and I thought, 'Oh man, this is what we’ve been working for,'" he said. "I didn’t want to let it slip away."

And so he didn’t. Napier scored 19 of his 24 points in the second half and OT, creating ways to score even though his jump shot wasn’t -- and by his own admission, hasn’t been -- falling.

Up 75-73, he drove to the rim and was fouled. One possession later, he drove for an and-1 dagger on a gassed Hawks team that really goes no deeper than its starting five.

Sitting in the stands, Jim Calhoun nodded.

"My son tapped me and said, 'We should probably get a timeout here,'" and I told him, 'No, Bazz is gonna take it to the hole,'" Calhoun said. "And that’s exactly what he did. That’s a four-year player, that’s a great player with a basketball IQ."

Napier has always had the basketball IQ, and maybe being so darned smart was almost a curse. He knew so much, cared so deeply, he had little patience or even tolerance for those who didn’t behave like he did, who didn’t offer the game its rightful deference.

It hurt the Huskies back when Napier was a sophomore. Pressed to replace Kemba Walker as both player and leader, he didn’t do a very good job and UConn struggled.

And then last year came the postseason ban, a devastating and shameful blow for a proud program, a tough load for first-year coach Kevin Ollie to inherit.

"Those players right there, that’s what kept this university alive," he said. "They could have transferred. They could have did anything. … We were banned from playing in the NCAA tournament, but we weren’t banned from loving each other. That’s what got us through."

Napier was one of the guys who toyed with leaving, stung by the APR ban and Calhoun’s retirement. But in the end, he stuck around because it was the right thing to do for a guy who believes strongly in doing the right thing.

And now having come through the rigors, the Huskies appear to be the better for it.

Napier doesn’t have to be Kemba Walker Light anymore. He can be if he needs to be, but that’s just it. He doesn’t have to be.

Against Saint Joe’s, he got plenty of help: 17 points from Ryan Boatright, 18 more from DeAndre Daniels. Napier might have scored the big buckets at the end, but they got him to that point.

"I was fortunate to make a lot of shots in the second half, but it wasn’t what I did in that second half," Napier said. "It’s what everybody who stepped on the court did. They never gave up. We were down. We had all the excuses to give up, but the guys were just willing each other, the resiliency we have is tremendous."

And that’s what Napier saw in the Saint Joe’s players. That’s what he wanted to acknowledge. Saint Joe’s rode the back of five seniors to get to this point, not just to the NCAA tourney but also to where the program is back on the right path.

Their magical ride looked like it might continue in the first half. The Hawks played almost flawlessly -- shooting 56 percent, fouling little, turning it over less.

But they couldn’t put enough distance between themselves and UConn, and when the Huskies came back, Saint Joe’s got tight. Suddenly a four-point lead turned into a tie and almost a loss, when Napier nearly pulled off a perfect hook and ladder at the end of regulation.

And then in OT, Napier and the Huskies just pushed it away and out of reach.

Martelli didn’t see Napier come over and acknowledge his players. But when he was told about it, he immediately understood.

"To me, a lot of our societal ways, we’ve lost our way because we no longer pay each other respect," he said. "I tried to build this program on respect, respect for the game, and I think that’s what he did."

It is exactly what he did.

In his time to celebrate, Shabazz Napier instead chose to celebrate something bigger than himself -- the game.