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Big Dance was worth price of admission

The real hardware will be handed out two weeks from tonight at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

But after a weekend of thrilling NCAA Tournament action at First Niagara Center, it’s appropriate to hand out some of our own honors after six games that gave us a little bit of everything. The capacity crowds on Thursday and Saturday saw some great individual performances and thrilling finishes.

Weekend MVP

Shabazz Napier of Connecticut. The star senior scored 25 points in 25 minutes Saturday to lead the Huskies into the Sweet 16 with a 77-65 victory over former Big East rival Villanova.

Napier played only 8 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, but showed why he was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year in the final 20 minutes. He scored 21 points in the second half, going 7 of 9 from the floor, including 4 of 6 from three-point range.

Napier also showed how tough he was after getting kicked in the shin, missing only 37 seconds of game time before coming back in to hit a circus layup to give his team a nine-point lead.

“He’s just tough-minded. A lot of things he’s been through in life made him that way,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said of Napier. “His mother, Carmen, is one of the toughest ladies around, and he’ll be the first to say that. How he was raised and what she had to do to keep their home together, I think he gets that toughness from her.

“He just goes out there and plays. I told you on many occasions he does whatever we need to win.”

The same was true Thursday night against Saint Joseph’s, when Napier scored nine of the Huskies’ 19 points in overtime of an 89-81 win. He finished that game with 24 points, eight rebounds and six assists.

Perhaps the best display of Napier’s leadership came in his postgame press conference after the win against Villanova.

“I get recognized for a lot of things, but everyone knows there’s no ‘I’ in team,” he said. “I got in foul trouble … and everybody stepped up. That’s what they do. I’m nothing without these guys, and today was a big show for that.”

All-Buffalo team

Ryan Boatright, G, UConn: When Napier went out Saturday, the ball-handling duties fell to Boatright. The junior averaged 14 points and 7.5 rebounds per game in the Huskies’ two victories.

Ryan Arcidiacono, G, Villanova: The baby-faced sophomore battled all night against UConn. He scored 18 points — well above his season average of 9.9 — and handed out six assists. Going up against Napier is a tall challenge, one that Arcidiacono rose up to.

Dyshawn Pierre, F, Dayton: Averaged 13 points and 7 rebounds per game as the Flyers won their two games by a combined three points.

C.J. Fair, F, Syracuse: The Orange’s senior leader had a pair of double-doubles, averaging 14 points and 10.5 rebounds per game.

Langston Galloway, G, Saint Joseph’s: The senior played all 45 minutes for the Hawks in their overtime loss to UConn, scoring 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting.

Honorary Buffalonian

Villanova coach Jay Wright. First he talked about how much he loved our wings, which he discovered during all the time he spent here in his first job as an assistant coach at the University of Rochester, recruiting former Canisius High star Rick Wnuk. Then it was reminiscing about getting “hammered” — during the game and after — when Hofstra played Oklahoma State here in 2000. Wright likes us. He really likes us.

Biggest upset

Both in terms of the seedings and what it did to fans inside First Niagara Center, it’s No. 11 Dayton’s 55-53 win over No. 3 Syracuse on Saturday. The Orange went 0 for 10 from three-point range – the first time in 665 games they failed to make at least one — the last miss by star freshman Tyler Ennis right before the final buzzer sounded. That sucked the air out of a stunned pro-Syracuse crowd inside the FNC.

Biggest shot

Dayton guard Vee Sanford’s runner off the glass with 3.8 seconds left provided the winning points for the Flyers on Thursday against Ohio State, setting the stage for their upset of Syracuse on Saturday.

Toughest miss

With a nod to Ennis, we’ll go with Ohio State’s Aaron Craft here. Craft’s 12-foot runner at the buzzer against Dayton narrowly missed. After the shot, the senior collapsed to the floor, his career over. The overhead camera caught one of the lasting images of the tournament thus far.

Biggest foul

With the game tied 70-70 in overtime, UConn’s DeAndre Daniels drove to the hole. He scored and was fouled by Saint Joseph’s Halil Kanacevic, the fifth and disqualifying foul for the Hawks’ big man. Daniels’ traditional three-point play provided the first scoring in overtime. Without Kanacevic, the Hawks were outscored in the extra session, 19-11.

Best quote

“They’re a small team, but they’re scrappy. They’re quick to the ball. Every time we put the ball down, they got a hand in there. They kind of set the tone early. We were trying to catch up the whole game.” – Syracuse forward C.J. Fair on Dayton.

Best mascot

The Saint Joseph’s Hawk literally never stops flapping its wings. Ever. It’s mesmerizing.

Best dunk

Syracuse’s Jerami Grant absolutely posterized Western Michigan’s 6-foot-11 center, Shayne Whittington, with a one-handed slam along the baseline. The dunk had the crowd going bonkers, and gave Syracuse a 22-point lead in what was an easy 77-53 triumph.

What’s next

Dayton will take on another Cinderella in No. 10-seed Stanford in a South Regional semifinal on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn. UConn, the No. 6 seed in the East Regional, will head to Madison Square Garden in New York, where it will meet No. 3 Iowa State on Friday.