Napier's The Joyful King Of Overtime

There is a certain, unmistakable joy that Shabazz Napier has brought to this UConn basketball season. During what could have been a dour year when the Huskies play for nothing more tangible than a strong regular season record, Napier has played as if his life depended on each January and February outcome.

His play in overtime has been, well, overwhelming.

"Spectacular," his coach Kevin Ollie said after Napier scored 11 of his 27 points in overtime as UConn outlasted Cincinnati 73-66 Thursday night at the XL Center.

By this point, even spectacular sounds like an understatement.

Digest these numbers for a second. Napier has scored 46 points in 29:40 of overtime play. Prorated over a 40-minute game, Shabazz would be averaging 62 points. Those are Wilt Chamberlain Big Dipper numbers. Those are Pete Maravich droopy socks numbers.

Napier is 8 of 12 on threes in five overtimes. He's 20 of 22 at the free-throw line. No wonder UConn, 18-7 overall and 8-5 in the Big East, is 4-1 in overtime. No wonder Ollie was speaking in superlatives. When it matters, Napier has been more like Kemba than even Kemba.

"He has no fear," Ollie said. "He's a leader that has no fear of failure, and that's a great thing."

Yet here is the conundrum in all this. The more clutch, the more fearless Napier plays in the difficult situations, the more joy he brings to what could have been a joyless season, the greater the chances he will leave after this season for the NBA draft.

We can argue all day about what he can and cannot bring to an NBA team. UConn fans can argue that Napier could improve even more in a senior season and, with something really to play for, the Huskies could have a really special season. All true. Yet you have to wonder if all these incredible endings — Kemba-like endings — are making his draft stock as high as it could be?

Napier said he'll wait until after the last game against Providence on March 9 and then talk it out with his family and his coaches. Of course, he will. He says all he wants to be is with his team. He says he's all about the team. Of course, he is. Yet the more disappointment and resignation you hear in his voice about this season with no postseason, the more it makes you wonder if Napier is bound to move on.

"I don't really think about it right now," Napier said. "Right now, I'm just sad that this is about to end. If it was possible, if we were able to get to the [NCAA] tournament, I think this team would make a crazy run. We're so together. I think the NCAA tournament is going to be missing a great team. I just hope that last game at Gampel [against Providence] is going to be crazy."

"I know when I start getting sad about certain situations I start to make jokes about it. I say a lot of jokes to the team about not playing in the NCAA Tournament. I'm making fun of it, because I'm so upset, so sad. I see what this team can actually be. For it not to be our fault, it is so heartbreaking."

Yes, there is a heartbreaking part. None of the players on this team are responsible for the lousy academic numbers that stripped the program of its postseason appearances. The APR heartache is coming home to roost.

As for overtimes, Napier just smiles a knowing smile.

"I get tired and I just want to get it over with," Napier joked. "Really, I have a much more aggressive attitude toward the game in overtime. I feel as if my team needs me much more. I know everybody is out there tired. And I want to just work, work, work … and I have confidence in my shot."

Most of the second half of this game had been painful to watch, the kind of half that made you want to poke your eyes out with a pen and pray for it to be over. The Huskies had 16 points in 18 1/2 minutes and the only reason they were still in it was because the Bearcats had only a few more. Yes, there was some stout defense, especially by Ryan Boatright on Cashmere Wright. After a bad game, a horrible body language game in the loss to Villanova, Boatright played through a 3 of 12 shooting night. He played his rear end off, holding Wright to 4 of 12 shooting and forcing him into a huge turnover on Cincinnati's last possession of regulation.

It was Napier who drove hard to the basket, almost shuffling the ball into the hoop with 40 seconds left to tie it. Napier came off a Tyler Olander screen and Cincinnati figured he would go right. He went left with the leaner.

After the Boatright steal, Ollie called a final play for Napier. It wasn't anything different. Ollie said the last three minutes of regulation and all of overtime was designed to put the ball in Napier's hands.

The last play, Napier's chance to win it in regulation, came off a high ball screen. The Huskies spread the floor, Omar Calhoun alone on one side. The Bearcats, however, didn't come off Calhoun. They came off DeAndre Daniels. Napier said he heard the crowd going crazy urging him to hurry up and go. Ollie told him to wait until five seconds. The Huskies cleared out. He ended up going into two players, but the ball just rimmed out.

"I have so much confidence in my shots I could go two games without making a shot and still have confidence," Napier said. "I feel like I'm going to take a good shot. All I have to do is see the ball go in the hoop one time … and you know it's going to happen."

So he hit one three 16 seconds into overtime. And, like he said, you know it's going to happen. He hit another three with 2:35 left and, yes, another with a minute left. Suddenly the hoop was bigger than a sinkhole.

Asked if Napier should be a serious Big East Player of the Year candidate, Ollie answered, "Yeah, big time. We've got a lot of great players in our league. He's right there. People not considering him, I don't know what they're doing, what they're thinking."

"If he keeps playing like this [the last five games], I think he deserves to be Big East Player of the Year."

Napier was known to talk first and think second in the past. His words are more carefully chosen now. After Ollie pushed him for player of the year, he demurred.

"If they had a Big East Team of the Year, I think it should be us," Napier said. "I don't live for individual awards. I don't think about it. I wasn't brought up like that. My older brother played and he never cared about individual awards. It stuck with me. Plus, I'm a point guard. I have to be for the team."

And then Shabazz Napier, the King of Overtime, stopped and thought for a second.

"We are a relentless team," Napier said. "We are like our '10-11 [national championship] team."

That team, of course, had everything to play for.

CHICAGO