– UConn had survived a frustrating shooting slump, had absorbed its opponents' run and regained the lead.
Shabazz Napier with the ball … open. He hits his three, then the next time down the floor, he takes a pass from Ryan Boatright and hits another.
"He makes timely shots," Kevin Ollie said, "He makes winning plays. That's why I love the kid."
Napier's shoulder injury was all but forgotten after he finished with 19 points, six assists and five rebounds in the Huskies' 66-54 Big East win over Rutgers before 12,768 at the XL Center on Sunday.
Another issue in the past, another experience filed away during his eventful college career.
"I understand how college basketball is," Napier said, "They're going to make a run, you're going to make a run. You've got to be the team that has the last run."
The Huskies (13-5, 3-3 Big East) were that team in a sluggish game in which neither team found much offensive rhythm. UConn missed 10 of its first 11 shots in the second half, and the Scarlet Knights slowly surged from seven points down to a 30-28 lead.
Off the bench came Niels Giffey, and with one of his four steals he went strong to the basket, scored, drew a foul and completed the three-point play to put UConn ahead 35-32 with 9:54 to go. Then Napier hit his two shots and the Huskies were off and running, up seven. They hit 10 of their last 17 shots to win going away.
"The game is slow to [Napier]," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. "When he wants to go fast, he goes fast. When he wants to get a shot, he gets a shot. He doesn't rush things. From last year, he has really matured in his approach and how he runs his team."
Napier agrees with all that. From the start of this season, he has felt the game slow down. "That comes with experience," he said. "I'm a junior now, I know what play to call, what shots to take."
Said Ollie, "You're not born a leader, you make the choice to be a leader. He is really making a definite choice to be a leader. It's not going to be perfect; he's going to have his times, but he is making the constant effort to try to lead, and what he gave us in practice this week was just remarkable."
The Huskies have followed that lead and are playing a more mature brand of basketball than last season — when a more talented team (on paper, at least) could not stop its season from spiraling out of control after a rough stretch of Big East play in January. These Huskies lost to Louisville and Pittsburgh, with Napier obviously hampered by his shoulder injury, but steadied and got this one — a necessary win at home if they are to push the 20-win mark.
"It's really not about wins and losses," said Ollie, who have a stern postgame speech about toughness after the loss at Pitt, "… it's about growing as a team, improving as a team. … If we keep getting better, I'm going to be happy."
The Huskies outrebounded Rutgers 37-33, including eight "team" rebounds, and held the Knights to 39.3 percent shooting from the floor. Of the Knights' scoring threats, only Jerome Seagears, with a career high 21, was a big factor in the game.
Napier was pronounced OK to play, and his left shoulder contusion, a problem since Jan. 14, did not seem to bother him as he led the Huskies with nine first-half points. Rutgers took a 13-8 lead, but then UConn put the defensive clamps on, shutting the Knights out for 5:42, outscoring Rutgers 10-0 to take an 18-13 lead on Boatright's jumper.
"I wasn't thinking about my shoulder," Napier said. "I was just excited about how well we were playing defense. That made me forget about my shoulder."
Boatright spent much of the first half on the bench with two fouls, but the Huskies led by as much as eight late in the half and were winning the rebounding battle. They took a 27-20 lead into the break.
Rutgers took the lead 30-28 on Seagears' three-pointer with 16:38 to play, and for the next several minutes the game was a possession-by-possession fight. Giffey, off the turnover, scored, drew a foul and completed the three-point play to give UConn a 35-32 lead. Napier made his three-point goals with 8:35 left, and 7:38 left, to make it 41-34.
Soon after Napier's pair of threes, DeAndre Daniels scored twice within 11 seconds, on a put-back and off a steal, to give UConn a nine-point lead, and when he hit a jumper with 1:50 to go, it was 56-43.
"We just had to punch back," said Daniels, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds.
Boatright scored 15, including 11 in the second half. The Huskies next play at Providence on Thursday night.
"We were plus-four on the backboards," Ollie said, "which I love to see, and we held them under 40 percent, which I love to see. So that's improvement. Now we have to be consistent, and start stringing [good games] together."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times