Without Shabazz Napier, Connecticut survived Saturday night. With him the Huskies thrived.
Connecticut capped a day of upsets by becoming the first team to knock a No. 2 seed from the field, and they did it by overcoming a double-digit first-half deficit and the prolonged absence of its star. Napier bounced back from early foul trouble and scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half, powering seventh-seeded UConn over Villanova, 77-65, at the First Niagara Center and into the Eastern Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden.
The Huskies (28-8) trailed by 10 early, led by one at the half, fell behind briefly early in the second half and then took charge. Consecutive threes by Napier put Villanova (29-5) in a 51-40 hole with 8:56 left. UConn’s biggest worry after that came when Napier went to the bench with an ankle sprain with a little over four minutes left and the lead down to five. But he returned to pretty much seal the deal on a scoop layup off a drive that made it 60-51 with 2:17 remaining.
DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright, and Terrerence Samuel each added 11 points and Lasan Kromah 12 for the Huskies, who are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since winning the 2011 national title. Ryan Arcidiacono was high for Villanova with 18 points. The Wildcats, who entered the tourney in an offensive funk, shot just 36 percent and struggled mightily outside of the first four minutes of both halves.
A game of twists and turns had another to start the second half. After an opening 20 minutes dominated by defense, suddenly the ball began finding the hoop with regularity. Villanova produced four threes – two of them by James Bell – in the first 4½ minutes. UConn countered with bombs by Daniels and Napier but also attacked the paint. Boatright, Napier, Daniels and 7-footer Amida Brimah all had inside baskets as the Huskies built a 41-36 advantage with 13:15 remaining.
UConn faced a dilemma when Napier was hit with his third foul with 12:15 left. Coach Kevin Ollie never hesitated. He pulled his star for a little over two minutes and made out in the deal as the Huskies retained their five-point advantage into the final 10 minutes. What’s more, Napier returned to nail a three right after his return and then followed up with another, a rainbow from maybe 25 feet. UConn’s lead was up to 51-40 and Villanova, struggling offensively, faced a monumental challenge.
The first half divided like oil and water. Villanova bolted out to a 19-9 lead, put UConn’s premier player on the bench with two fouls and somehow went to the locker room trailing 25-24.
Much of the pregame talk centered on Villanova’s struggles from behind the arc. The Wildcats shoot more threes than all but three teams in the nation. Yet their aim was off in the Big East Tournament loss to Seton Hall, and again in their second-round victory here over Milwaukee.
“We don’t really worry about that,” guard Darrun Hilliard said Friday. “We just worry about getting stops on the defensive end, and we’re just going to keep working on making the extra pass and getting better shots.”
His words proved prophetic as Villanova shot out to a 13-5 lead that prompted a UConn timeout at 15:45 even though the mandated broadcast timeout loomed. The trey was relegated to secondary status during the blitz. More telling was ’Nova’s ability to puncture UConn’s interior defense, and JayVaughn Pinkston set the tone with a hard drive down the lane for the game’s opening basket.
The Wildcats liked what they saw and they went back for more. An entry pass found 6-11 Daniel Ochefu down low, where he drew a Flagrant 1 (intentional) foul against Phillip Nolan, giving the Wildcats two shots and the ball. Ochefu made both free throws and the bonus possession paid big dividends when Arcidiacono swished a three from the wing.
UConn went down as far at 19-9 with its situation worsening along the way. A charging call against guard Napier sent the AAC Player of the Year off with 12:09 remaining. It was an ominous sign for the Huskies, who rely on Napier in so many ways. He leads them in scoring, assists and rebounds.
“When we were struggling rebounding, he got 11, 12 rebounds,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said Friday. “If we’re struggling in moving the basketball, he becomes the perfect facilitator for us. So he has that innate ability to do whatever we need at any time.”