BUFFALO, N.Y. — UConn was losing and its best player, its all-everything player, was going to the bench, probably for a long stretch.
"He told me, go in there and do what you do," said freshman Terrence Samuel, who replaced Shabazz Napier.
For 12 minutes, UConn's season hung in the balance. Its NCAA Tournament hopes depended not on Napier, but on the supporting cast. And the Huskies not only held their own, they took ownership of the game.
They held Villanova without a field goal for more than 11 minutes, outrebounded the Wildcats, outplayed them. Then in the second half, Napier returned and buried them.
The Huskies beat Villanova 77-65 Saturday night —- a stirring, brilliant victory that vaulted them into the Sweet 16 and back to Madison Square Garden, where they will face either Iowa State or North Carolina Friday. The Huskies were seeded seventh in the East, Villanova second, but that matters very little anymore.
"They showed toughness. They showed resilience. They played with a will," coach Kevin Ollie said, linking the biggest win of his young coaching career with the Huskies' past champions. "That's what our guys do. That's how we're built. We're UConn-made. We're UConn-made through and through."
Napier played only eight minutes in the first half, coming out after picking up his second foul, a charge, with 12 minutes to go and the Huskies trailing, 16-9. UConn began a 16-1 run as the Wildcats went 15 possessions without scoring from the field. With Samuel, Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah in the game, Villanova's offense was constricted, and the Wildcats just launched three-point shots again and again.
"That was probably the second most important part of the game," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Him not being on the floor and them making up the difference. We had a lead. That was disappointing."
The Wildcats briefly took the lead early in the second half, but Napier took over, hitting three-point shots, making acrobatic shots driving through the lane, making free throws. He hit a deep three-pointer with 8:59 to play to give the Huskies a 51-40 lead — this was the most important part of the game — and they never looked back. Napier scored 21 points in the second half despite coming out for stretches after getting his third foul and, with assistance, after getting kicked in the shin. But he scored 25 points in 25 minutes on the floor, with five rebounds and five assists.
"Napier," Wright said, "was just awesome."
"He had that one three from beyond, from NBA range," Samuel said, "and I was like, wow, he's NBA ready."
Samuel, who is from Brooklyn, scored a career-high 11 points and created havoc on defense, the niche he carved for himself in the latter stages of his freshman season.
"I think the reason Terrence played so well is because he wanted to go home [to the Garden]," Niels Giffey said.
Kromah scored 12 and had four steals and DeAndre Daniels scored 11 points and had five rebounds.
But the key to the game, the Huskies outrebounded the bigger, brawnier Wildcats, 36-30. Giffey had a career-high 11 rebounds and Ryan Boatright, the smallest guy on the floor, had seven to go with 11 points.
"Coach challenged me before the game," Boatright said. "He said, 'They shoot a lot of threes. There are going to be a lot of long rebounds. I need you to get five rebounds – I got seven. That was the best rebounding we did all year."
The Huskies also forced 16 turnovers, getting six steals. The Wildcats were 18-for-51 from the field, 11-for-31 on threes. Ryan Arcidiacono scored 18 points, James Bell 14.
UConn was 23-for-52 overall, 9-for-20 on threes.
"I get recognized for a lot of things," said Napier, who was the American Athletic Conference player of the year and is a finalist for all the major awards. "I got myself into foul trouble and Boatright, being the captain he is, stepped up. Niels stepped up. Terrence got in the game and stepped up. I could go down the list. ... It was a beautiful thing to watch."
The Huskies got off on awkward footing. Daniels missed a wide-open mid-range jumper, and the Wildcats got off on the break. When Phil Nolan was called for an intentional foul, Villanova got five quick points, the last three on Arcidiacono's three to take a 7-0 lead. Just after Napier went out, Villanova extended its lead to 19-9 on Darrun Hilliard's three-pointer, but it was all UConn after that.
"I want to just keep riding Uncle Mo," Ollie said. "That's momentum. Wherever it takes us, it takes us."
Next, it takes UConn to the scene of some of the program's greatest victories, from the NIT in 1988, through a generation of Big East tournament moments to this year's win over Indiana in the 2K Classic. Thousands of seats will certainly find their way into the hands of UConn fans between now and Friday.
"We call the Garden our second home," Boatright said, "because when we go to the Garden, we take care of business."Copyright © 2015, RedEye