Napier Has All The Deadly Moves

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NEW YORK — On his last trip to the big city two Fridays ago, Shabazz Napier was saying that he didn't, he couldn't, bring himself to watch the NCAA Tournament last spring.

"'Animal Planet,' man," Napier said after UConn had squeaked past Maryland by one point at Barclays Center.

What?

"I was watching 'Animal Planet,' I love it."

Kevin Ollie runs some intense stuff at his practices. One of those drills, for a program that prides itself on defense, is called "Three Stops," in which the D is called on to go three consecutive possessions without allowing basket. And as UConn and Indiana battled to the end at Madison Square Garden in the kind of thrilling game that can help define a season, it was clear that both teams ate, drank and slept pick-and-rolls and ball screens before this one.

Yet, as the No. 18 Huskies were pulling out another one-point triumph, 59-58, to capture the 2K Sports Classic, I couldn't help picturing Napier sitting in front of some 60-inch, high-def television each day examining the moves of the cobra and the mongoose on "Animal Planet." You know, fiddling with the remote, fast forward, rewind, slow motion, freeze frame, watching the two fastest species strike, recoil, strike on "Wild Kingdom."

That's what it is like watching Napier, who scored 27 points on this night, each bigger than the previous. Cobra. Mongoose. Tournament MVP.

Every time Indiana charged to a lead, every time the Hoosiers looked to gain control of the momentum, there was Napier striking back. There he was in the closing moments of the first half after Indiana had erased a six-point UConn lead. Napier drilled a three with 45 seconds left. He then sent UConn racing off the court with a six-point intermission lead, drilling a deep three with three seconds left. Strike. Recoil. Strike.

"That's Mission Hill coming out of him, that's Boston," Ollie said. "He's just a fighter. He doesn't get down on himself. I told him he has a special gift and for him to get to that next level he has got to start giving away that gift. You can't hold it in. That's what he did. He showed everybody."

So, after Indiana erased a seven-point UConn lead in a two-minute stretch early in the second half, there was Napier striking back once more with five successive points, capped by a shot over Austin Etherington with 12:37 left to put UConn up, 38-34.

"It's not all buckets," Ollie said. "It's the leadership Shabazz is providing. He didn't do that earlier in his career. Now, he's doing it. He had seven turnovers. He doesn't like that. But all the big plays, he made."

"Sometimes my teammates let me know, not verbally, but I can tell just by the way they carry themselves," Napier said. "If I see DeAndre Daniels down about not scoring, I know that I have to try and score and be more aggressive. I was aggressive in the beginning. I laid off a little, got aggressive again. I got DeAndre on the open three because all eyes were on me. I go off the flow. But if I think it's time, then I'm going to go."

Nothing was easy on this night. Ollie called it a "heart" game. He meant grit for his players, although he probably meant hard on the auricle and ventricle for the fans.

So there was Indiana slicing the lead again to one and, yes, Napier answering back, blowing past Will Sheehey and Luke Fisher for a layup to make it 45-42 and reaching down and tapping the floor with both hands in celebration.

"We don't set screens, but they did a great job setting screens tonight to get him open shots," Ollie said. "When Shabazz steps up, it's money in the bank, especially when he goes left and can get that pull-up. He's so herky-jerky with his dribble, he throws guys off."

That herky-jerky? I swear he got that watching cobra and mongoose highlights from "Wild Kingdom."

Napier wasn't nearly finished. When Indiana took a 51-49 lead, he snapped back with a three, and after a Jeremy Hollowell jumper, Napier found Daniels for that three to make it 55-53.

"We had seven overtime games last year, won five of them," Ollie said. "He was such a big part of that, making threes. He just relishes the moment. Some people run away from the moment. He embraces them. That's a special quality. I know I could never do that. I was the one passing."

It was crazy now. There were lead changes on seven successive possessions down the stretch. With Napier hitting 10 of 14 shots, it was grand theater. Of course, Napier scored the winning basket. After hitting a step-back jumper to make it 57-56 and Evan Gordon answering back, Napier went to the glass to score over Devin Davis with 1:34 left.

It also wasn't perfect. Crazy never is. Napier missed four of seven foul shots. He finished with seven turnovers. He threw the ball away with 2:53 left. And then with the shot clock off, a lead of one and the game seemingly won, he got called for an offensive foul with 21 seconds left.

Trying to guard Napier, Yogi Ferrell fell down. He got back up and he was backing off. Napier initiated contact. I know UConn fans swear it wasn't a charge, but, man, I thought Napier used an arm bar, too. I didn't think it was a terrible call.

"It was a bonehead play, I should have passed it," Napier said. "But I don't think it was a charge. Yogi fell. I was going toward the basket. With the new hand-checking rules, it's supposed to be a foul on Yogi. The ref called an offensive foul. I had to change my mind-set and try to get a stop for the team. Sometimes you get bad calls. Sometimes you miss free throws. It's all part of the game. You've got to get through it."

The Huskies did. Napier did. Neither team scored in the final 94 seconds. Yet by that time, some members of the New York media had seen enough to strike the comparison to another New York kid named Kemba Walker. Napier was asked if he watched Kemba on tape.

"Of course, that's my big brother," Napier said. "I try to emulate everything he does in a sense, but I also try and put my type of talent and skills on it. I'm not trying to be him. Those are some hard shoes to fill. I'm just trying to be Shabazz. If I can continue to play the way I have, minus the free throws and turnovers, I think I should be good."

Me? I think he's watching highlights on "Animal Planet." Dude's a cobra or a mongoose. One of 'em. He's definitely MVP of this tournament.

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