By John Vogl
Shabazz Napier is a modern-day rarity, a college star who stuck around for four years. Because of his play, Connecticut is sticking around for the Sweet 16.
Napier refused to let his collegiate career come to an end in Buffalo, scoring 21 of his 25 points in the second half as seventh-seeded UConn upset No. 2 Villanova, 77-65, early this morning. The Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference was 9 for 13 from the field, including 4 of 8 from three-point range.
The Huskies will head to New York City this week for the East Region portion of the Sweet 16. They will play the winner of today’s game between No. 3 seed Iowa State and sixth-seeded North Carolina.
The Wildcats showed the most energy it had all night when Napier hobbled to the bench with a leg injury with 4:01 to go. UConn held a 56-49 lead when he went out, with 20 of those points coming from Napier’s hot hand.
He wasn’t gone long enough for Villanova to take advantage, returning to the court less than a minute later to the relief of UConn fans and to the applause of the remaining fans in the crowd of 19,290. The next time Napier walked off the court, with 19.9 seconds left, it was with his team ready to celebrate a victory.
The Huskies (28-8) overcame 10-point deficits during both their games in Buffalo.
Connecticut came out for the second half with a one-point deficit, but a quick 9-2 run them a 33-27 lead with 2:24 off the clock.
Villanova responded with a 9-2 run of its own to go up, 36-35, its first lead since a 20-18 edge in the first half. Bell keyed the run with a pair of three-pointers.
Napier countered with his own long-distance barrage, giving the Huskies a 50-41 lead with 8:59 left on back-to-back bombs. It was his night and his show.
Both teams held the lead in the first half, though it seemed neither team wanted it. They combined to shoot just 32.7 percent with 13 turnovers.
UConn, which proved during its last game that a 10-point deficit means nothing, showed it again during the first half. Villanova ran to a 19-9 lead through the opening 8:27. The Wildcats couldn’t handle the prosperity.
Villanova had just one free throw to show for a miserable 10-minute stretch as its lead evaporated. It missed 10 straight shots from the field.
While UConn hardly looked like a world beater, it nonetheless enjoyed a 16-1 run to take a 25-20 advantage during the final minute.
The Wildcats finally woke up with 30 seconds to go, picking up another free throw and a three-pointer by Arcidiacono to cut its halftime deficit to 25-24. The Huskies shot just 34.5 percent in the first half. Villanova fired at just 30.4 percent.