NEW YORK – A Boston kid did it in New York. Even if he channeled some of a New Yorker to do it, considering the two cities’ long-time rivalry with each other in so many respects, it’s quite a story. And they don’t get much more “Boston original” than Shabazz Napier, the hero in Connecticut’s championship in the 2K Sports Classic by virtue of a thrilling 59-58 win over Indiana.
One of the last times Connecticut was on this floor, they were celebrating the end of an amazing run in the 2011 Big East Tournament. Then, Kemba Walker led the Huskies to five wins in five days as the start of an 11-game winning streak that ended in the 2011 national championship. Napier was part of that team and had two years of playing together with Walker, and the resemblance is a sign of the influence Walker had on the confident senior guard.
“That’s my big brother,” said the senior guard of Walker. “I try to emulate everything he does in a sense, but also put my type of skills on it. I’m not trying to be him, those are hard shoes to fill, I’m just trying to be Shabazz.”
Napier was the MVP of the tournament after a sterling 27-point effort against Indiana in Friday night’s 59-58 win. On a night where offense was hard to come by for both teams, Napier provided most of it and did so with shooting numbers (10-14, including 4-6 from long range) that might surprise anyone who watched a game that had a March-like atmosphere. Both teams shot around 40 percent on the evening and combined for 36 turnovers.
The Huskies count on Napier for a lot, and as he understands what a point guard must do he happily accepts it. Coming back this season after the team wasn’t eligible for postseason play a year ago was the only thing that made sense for him. He competed like he always did through all of that, as did the rest of the team, and that’s something that shined through in Friday’s win.
Head coach Kevin Ollie noted that the Huskies played seven overtime games last season and won five of them. In one of the two losses, a double overtime thriller against Georgetown, they had the game won before blowing it late. This is a team that doesn’t stop competing, and while it’s not loaded with talent like it was during some of the Jim Calhoun years, there is plenty on this team to go with the intangibles.
Since the magical run that started on the Garden floor in 2011, the Huskies have had to forge something different for their identity. With no postseason to play for last season and a depleted front line due to transfers, this team had to rely on things like toughness and chemistry. There’s no faking either of them, and this team has it all in spades. That’s why Ollie knew this team had what they showed Friday in them, because he saw it all last year.
“They proved that a long time ago to me, last year, when we were going through everything and they stayed and fought,” said the Husky mentor. “I know this team’s got heart, they’ve got loyalty, they play for the number one fans in the country, and they already proved it.”
At the nerve center of it all is Napier, the senior who has seemingly been on a basketball radar forever. He was seemingly a Boston city legend before he even finished high school, as so many knew about him growing up in the Mission Hill section of Roxbury. His talents have been well-known in the city, although he’s traveled a long road to this point that included time at prep school, but since arriving at Connecticut he has been a mainstay. He was a key part of the championship team two years ago and has been this team’s unquestioned leader since then.
Napier is thoughtful, bright, charismatic and accountable. He hasn’t been without minor cases of letting his competitiveness get the better of him, but he’s never had a serious incident along that line. When he hasn’t played well, he’s come out to say he’s accountable. When the team hasn’t played well, he says he’s the floor leader and takes responsibility. His potential professional future is a subject for debate, as NBA scouts haven’t been enamored with him, but his value to this team isn’t up for debate and someone may like that as well as his growth.
“I think it’s that Mission Hill coming out of him, that Boston,” said Ollie. “He’s just a fighter, a warrior. He never gets down on himself. I told him, he has a special gift, and for him to get to the next level, he has to start giving away his gift, and he can’t hold it in. It’s not all about the buckets, it’s the leadership he’s providing right now.”
The Huskies can be in the postseason once again this time around, and they have the personnel to reach the NCAA Tournament and win games. They have the intangibles as well, because what they established last year in that respect laid the groundwork for winning the 2K Sports Classic. The Boston kid shall lead them, even in New York, and Friday night is an indication that he can lead them somewhere in a similar fashion to the native who got a magical run started on that court a couple of years ago.