In fulfilling a promise to his mother, Shabazz Napier fulfilled his own promise as a basketball player.
It was Napier, the senior, who turned back the fabulous and more famous freshmen of Kentucky in an NCAA championship victory that seemed to affirm the old-fashioned notion that good things come to those who wait.
Napier’s refusal to crack as Kentucky rallied for a sixth straight comeback was the key to Connecticut’s 60-54 victory on Monday night. He taught those freshmen a lesson about the steepness of the learning curve in college basketball.
Napier, who finished with 22 points, six rebounds and three steals, knelt on the floor in tears after the Huskies completed what began as a stealthy run through the tournament by beating the ballyhooed young team from Kentucky. He pointed into the stands to his mother, Carmen Velasquez, who raised him by herself in Roxbury, Mass., and made him pledge to stay in school rather than jump to the pros.
Napier now has two titles, one as protégé to Kemba Walker in 2011, and one as the speedy, silky leader of his own Fab Five. He is on track to graduate with his sociology degree, too.
Kentucky had the superstars, the projected NBA first-round draft picks. They commanded most the attention, too, with the fast-talking John Calipari defending his method of recruiting top talent with another kind of promise: Come play for me for one season, and leave a rich young man.
Napier played for four, making the Storrs, Conn., campus his home away from home. His patience should pay off big. The championship game was a showcase of his skill, creativity and resolve.
The thrilling game belied the inauspicious seeds of the two foes. Kentucky tried and tried to pass Connecticut, but every time it pulled close, Connecticut accelerated out of reach.
Kentucky, a No. 8 seed, and Connecticut, a No. 7, arrived at the championship game with the lowest combined seeding since seeding began 36 years ago. Their combined total of 18 regular season losses was not stellar, either.
The lowest previous seed to win was No. 8 Villanova, coached by the rumpled, godfatherly Rollie Massimino and led by Ed Pinckney. Those Wildcats upset the Georgetown Hoyas of John Thompson and Patrick Ewing in 1985.
But no one was fooled by the fat numbers of this Final Two. No one was surprised to see Kentucky and Connecticut in the final, fighting like Cats and Dogs. The two schools have won three of the past four championships, and a total of 12 between them. When players from both teams kept insisting they were doubted and disrespected, no one believed them. It was just a matter of time for the hardy perennials from Kentucky and Connecticut. This season, they were late bloomers. Kentucky sank to No. 25 in the polls in early March, while Connecticut was languishing at No. 19.
The final matchup, like the rest of the 2014 tournament, was a lot of fun. Seven games went to overtime. Nineteen were decided by five points or fewer. No. 11 seed Dayton was the darling, making a run to the Elite Eight. TV ratings were up. Players such as Doug McDermott, Cleanthony Early, Nick Johnson, Jabari Parker and Frank Kaminsky entranced fans. It was a very good year for the sport, which has seen its popularity hurt by the transience of its best players. The sofas weren’t burning in Lexington. Maybe next year, when Calipari will reload with more McDonald’s All-Americans.
“We had our chances, we hung in there,” Calipari said. “I needed to do a couple more things to get over the hump. We couldn’t foul late because those guards aren’t missing. We missed the shots and free throws we had to make. I thought at the start of the half we were going to win.” Calipari said his freshmen were anxious and winded at the start of the game, when they fell behind quickly.
“If you were 18 and you had to be in that kind of environment and everybody you looked at was 18, how would you do?” he said. “These kids aren’t machines.” The game boiled down to Connecticut’s backcourt vs. Kentucky’s frontcourt. It was critical for Kentucky to unlock the pressure of Connecticut’s agile guards, which Florida failed to do so miserably in Saturday’s semifinal.
The hands of Napier and Ryan Boatright flashed like a magician’s. Their feet called to mind a jump-roping boxer. They made all others look like they were moving in slow motion. The tandem’s ability to improvise left opponents grasping at air. The one time they didn’t seem in synch was when they both went airborne to grab a ball flying out of bounds, and couldn’t save it. Napier was so quick he was able to run down and recover his own no-look dish that wasn’t caught by a teammate, then turn it into an assist. Kentucky used its superior size and the muscle of Julius Randle to work the post and get to the free throw line, but made just 13 of its 24 foul shots while Connecticut was 10-for-10. The 10-rebound advantage Kentucky averaged against opponents evaporated against the diligent Huskies, who had 34 boards to Kentucky’s 33.
“Me and Shabazz are not going to back down to anybody,” Boatright said. “To get to the rim, you’ve got to get past us.” Kentucky went into halftime trailing – but the Wildcats managed to reduce a 15-point gap to four after
Calipari switched to zone defense to slow down Connecticut. The Huskies’ freelancing got messy early in the second half, igniting Kentucky’s transition game. The lead shrunk to one on an Aaron Harrison fast-break basket. Connecticut settled down in the next five minutes. DeAndre Daniels finally finished a tap-in, Niels Giffey nailed a three-pointer, Boatright turned a steal into two free throws and Napier sank a jumper to make the score 48-39.
But just like that, after an 8-0 run primed by James Young, Kentucky was back within one point with 8:13 left.
Then Napier swished an off-balance three-pointer from Waco, Giffey added one of his own and Boatright made his fifth field goal in six attempts. Kentucky nibbled, but could not chomp down on its first lead of the game.
At the 2:47 mark, Napier lobbed to Daniels inside for a six-point edge. Boatright dribbled time off the clock. Kentucky missed four of its last five shots. The Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, attempted three-pointers in the frantic final seconds but couldn’t connect, as Aaron had on three straight game-winning shots. The Texas homecoming for three Kentucky starters came up six points short.
“They just hit some daggers,” Aaron said of Connecticut’s guards.
Kevin Ollie, in only his second season as a head coach, 19 years after he graduated from Connecticut, ran up and down the sideline as if he was in the game. He’s now 6-0 in the NCAA Tournament, and brought a title to his alma mater, confirming the faith of his mentor, Jim Calhoun, who won three titles at Connecticut. Calhoun, Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton were among those in the Huskies’ locker room afterward.
“Somebody said we were Cinderellas,” Ollie said. “No, we’re UConn. This is what we do.” Napier’s loyalty was tested when Calhoun retired two years ago for health reasons. Last year, Connecticut was banned from the postseason because of the low academic progress rate of previous athletes. Napier didn’t bolt. He got back on the dean’s list. In January, after Connecticut lost its fourth game, Napier, 22, made a bold prediction, and a promise.
“I remember telling these guys, ‘Everybody pick your head up. At the end of the day we’re going to be the team that’s holding that trophy. I promise you that.’ It’s so surreal that it actually happened!”
The Final Four was held inside AT&T Stadium, the big-as-Texas home of the Dallas Cowboys. It was a ridiculous venue for basketball. Many of the 79,238 spectators might as well have been watching ants. The giant screen above the court was longer than the court itself. Former presidents and hoops fans George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were up there somewhere, sitting next to each other.
They got to see Napier prevail. He proved an excellent advocate for the power of higher education. In May, he expects to collect another reward – with his mother as eyewitness, again -- for his dedication to the long haul: His diploma. You could say his off-court vision exceeds his on-court vision.