No Napier madness? Heartbreaking

Connecticut's Shabazz Napier drives past Cincinnati's Titus Rubles in the closing seconds of the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Napier, who scored a game-high 27 points in his team's 73-66 victory, missed this shot, forcing the game into overtime. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)

Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier drives past Cincinnati’s Titus Rubles in the closing seconds of the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. Napier, who scored a game-high 27 points in his team’s 73-66 victory, missed this shot, forcing the game into overtime. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)

John F. Silver

HARTFORD, Conn. — When Shabazz Napier is feeling down or sad, or even a little nervous he likes to crack jokes.

It’s a tension reliever for himself, helps take the edge off and blunts the arrows and daggers that are really bothering him.

Napier is a terrific quote and perhaps the smartest player and smoothest talker on the team.

It’s his tongue that may gave gotten him in trouble with his teammates over the years, but it is his passion, sincerity and most of all his truthfulness that attracts others to him.

After scoring 27 points, 11 in overtime, and helping the Huskies to a 73-66 win over Cincinnati at the XL Center, Napier spoke the truth.

“If it were possible to get to the tournament, this team would make a crazy run,” Napier said. “I think we are so together and the NCAA tournament is going to be missing a great team.

“I see what this team can actually be and do. For us not to play in it, and it not being our fault, it’s so heartbreaking.”

This UConn team, at 18-7, 8-5 in conference, has only five games left. The postseason ban due to poor academics years ago is going to end the season of UConn and Napier early, March 9th at home against Providence. A fun-loving and flawed team that is the kind of darling that March loves will be on the beach somewhere.

Who wouldn’t want to see the marvelous Roxbury native showcase his wares in a regional?
The junior guard showed a glimpse of what others will miss once again on Thursday as he put on a show in the overtime against Cincinnati.

Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie speaks with Shabazz Napier late in overtime of Connecticut's 73-66 victory over Cincinnati in an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)

Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie speaks with Shabazz Napier late in overtime of Connecticut’s 73-66 victory over Cincinnati in an NCAA college basketball game in Hartford, Conn., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Fred Beckham)

His 11 points in five minutes is par for the course. He turned an unwatchable game into a Napier highlight film the last three minutes and overtime.

That’s what Napier does.

In six overtime periods this year, five games, Napier has an astounding 46 points in 29 minutes on 9 of 14 shooting, 8 of 12 from 3-point range and 20 of 22 from the line. His adjusted points per-40 minute average is over 60 points a game in overtime.

No one has those stats – not close – and the Huskies, with a motley crew of a roster that is getting nothing from the center position, is somehow 18-7 and 8-5 in the Big East.

Napier’s play is going criminally ignored this season nationally for the NCAA banished Huskies. The holes in the UConn roster are enormous, and that has coach Kevin Ollie’s Big East Player of the Year vote.

“Yeah. Big time, he’s made plays for us,” Ollie said when asked if Napier warrants strong consideration. “We have a lot great players in our league, but he’s right there. If you do not consider him (for)Big East Player of the Year, I don’t know what they are doing and thinking of.”

Napier is averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting a robust 44.4 percent from the floor and 39.6 percent from 3-point range. His overtime numbers are as good as humanely possible and his ball-handling and leadership on the court are without peer.

What separates Napier from all the rest is what happens in crunch time however. Ollie put the ball in Napier’s hand and told his guard to go out there and win the game.

“That was the last three minutes, get balls in his hand,” Ollie said. “Not a lot of Xs and Os with that.

Napier tied the game at 53-53 with a foul shot in regulation. He tied the game at 55-55 with a bank shot jumper, and he put together a show in overtime.

Napier learned as an understudy to Kemba Walker in 2010 and learned well. His antics this season have that Kemba look.

Against Cincinnati he hit two 3-pointers right out of the gate in overtime to set the tone. When he lined up for his third 3-point attempt of the overtime the Cincinnati bench cringed, the players on the bench shoulders slumped and Bearcats head coach Mick Cronin grimaced. Everyone knew his shot to make it 66-60 was going to go down.

Napier is what Ollie likes to call fearless. What he does is strike fear in his opponents.

“He likes the big moments, goes back to self-confidence and belief system,” Ollie said. “It’s a mind state. In the overtime he feels he can make the shots.”

What Napier doesn’t like is all the attention. Ollie had to force Napier to talk to the ESPN sideline crew after the game. In interviews he flashed a nervous smile when asked about being Big East Player of the Year award.

He didn’t know how to respond to questions about the NBA, which came three separate times.

Napier deflected the NBA and said he was going to sit down after the season and discuss it with his family. He said it all through his nervous smile.

That’s not what he wants to talk about.

What he wanted to talk about is this team that has morphed from what many thought was going to a forgettable team to one that will be remembered fondly.

In many ways, it mirrors the 2010-11 national title team that got on a roll in March.

This team won’t have the chance to duplicate the heroics. UConn’s season ends against Providence on March 9.

“We are going to try and win as many games as we can and that last game at Gampel, it’s going to be crazy,” Napier said. “Hopefully, the fans keep pushing us and go out and support us.”

That’s just sad.