By John Vogl
Shabazz Napier definitely lived up to the hype.
Napier, the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, refused to let Connecticut falter in its return to the NCAA Tournament. The senior guard finished with 24 points, including nine in overtime, as the Huskies downed pesky Saint Joseph’s, 89-81, tonight in First Niagara Center.
Napier led the seventh-seeded Huskies across the board, adding eight rebounds and six assists to his point total. Napier averaged 17.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists this season.
The 10th-seeded Hawks gave the Huskies all they could handle in a game that featured 13 lead changes.
Saint Joseph’s built a 10-point lead with 3:16 left in the first half, but UConn steadily chipped away at its deficit. The Huskies finished the opening half on an 8-3 run to make it 40-35, and they continued after leaving locker room by scoring the first two baskets to make it 40-39.
The teams exchanged 6-0 runs, and UConn stayed within four before finally catching the Hawks. Napier was fouled on a successful drive, and he made the free throw to give UConn a 55-53 lead with 9:14 remaining.
It was the Huskies’ first lead since a 16-15 advantage with 8:23 gone in the game.
The Hawks, who use just seven players, had enough wind to rally. They regained the lead and built a five-point advantage, 64-59, with 5:11 to play.
Another UConn three-pointer, this time by DeAndre Daniels, put the Huskies ahead, 67-66, with 2:09 to play. After the Hawks regained the lead, a traditional three-point plaby Amida Brimah made it 70-70 with just 39 seconds remaining.
Saint Joseph’s Langston Galloway, eating up time with three seconds differential between the game and shot clock, tried to set up his team for the late lead but botched his dribble and missed wildly on a desperation drive.
UConn inbounded the ball with 2.7 seconds left with a well-designed play that gave Napier an open running jumper, but he missed to send the teams to overtime. The Huskies took care of the game at the free-throw line to earn the right to play Saturday against the winner of tonight’s late East Region game between No. 2 Villanova and No. 15 Milwaukee.