Fans didn’t get to see much of Connecticut star Shabazz Napier in the first half Saturday night at First Niagara Center.
No worries, though.
He was worth the price of admission in the second.
Napier, the reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, fought through foul trouble and injury to lead the Huskies to a 77-65 win over Villanova, sending them to the Sweet 16.
Napier played just under 8 minutes in the first half, sitting for the final 12:09 after picking up his second foul. He scored just four points before the break.
With their star stapled to the bench, Huskies coach Kevin Ollie turned to a true freshman – Terrence Samuel – and crossed his fingers he’d be able to keep the Huskies in it.
There might not have been a more important 12 minutes played.
The Huskies were trailing, 16-9, when Samuel went into the game. By the time Napier checked back in to start the second half, the Huskies had gone up, 25-24 by outscoring the Wildcats, 16-9.
If Samuel was nervous about playing in the biggest game of his life, it didn’t show. He calmly scored four points and dished out one assist in Napier’s absence. Samuel blew away his season averages of a little more than 7 minutes and 1.8 points per game by finishing with 21 and 11, respectively.
Of course, there really isn’t any way to replace a player like Napier, and he showed why in the second half. A third personal foul with 12:15 left sent him to the bench again, but Ollie sat him for only 2:05, trusting his senior would be able to avoid a fourth foul.
Napier rewarded his coach by knocking down back-to-back three-pointers in less than a minute to give the Huskies a 51-40 lead with a little less than 9 minutes left.
After drilling another contested three to put the Huskies up, 54-45, with 6:08 left, Villanova coach Jay Wright could only offer a frustrated clap – one that said, “What else can we do?”
The answer turned out to be nothing.
Even after spraining his right ankle, Napier couldn’t be stopped. He missed only 37 seconds of game time, and then promptly converted a circus layup with 2:19 left that again gave the Huskies a nine-point lead.
Napier finished with 25 points, five rebounds and three assists in 25 minutes – providing the perfect mix of clutch scoring, senior leadership and toughness that the Huskies hope makes them a threat as the tournament continues.