Shabazz Napier is a player who wants to take the important shots, and on Sunday, no one could blame him.
His teammates were missing three out of every four, so when Napier found open space a few feet behind the three-point arc, he launched them.
Napier missed one that would have won the game in regulation, then he made three in a row to start the overtime session, and the Huskies had found yet another way to defy logic and the stat sheet to beat South Florida 69-64 before 9,205 at Gampel Pavilion.
"He's got that belief that he can make any shot," coach Kevin Ollie said, "and if he misses, he shakes it back off. 'Bazz is not scared to fail, and that's a great attribute. From failure comes success. He's not scared to take that big shot in the big moment. I think he embraces it, which is crazy, but it's what great players do."
Napier, the junior guard, scored 24 points, 11 of them coming in overtime as the Huskies overcame what was probably the worst first half a UConn team has played in a decade. They came from 12 points behind with a quick surge early in the second half and prevailed despite shooting just 29 percent from the floor. They were outrebounded 43-41 for the 15th time in 20 games.
"I've got a wonderful team," Ollie said. "They take you on some rides, but eventually they pull it together. It's just the heart they show. You knew it wasn't going to be perfect in the Big East, but getting wins, it's something we're learning how to do."
UConn (15-5, 5-3 Big East) has won three in a row. South Florida is 10-11, 1-8 and last in the league. Last Thursday, UConn was outrebounded at Providence 55-24, but won in OT. That one could be explained by the Huskies' 50 percent shooting. This game was perhaps a greater anomaly: UConn hit 5 of 27 shots in the first half and trailed 27-15, their lowest scoring first half since Dec. 10, 2002, when they trailed UMass 30-9, but came back to win, as they did this time.
"We came out and we just played terrible," said Ryan Boatright, "the worst I've ever seen us play, as a team or as individuals."
In the locker room, Ollie talked simply, but emphatically, about effort and energy.
"We didn't bring any energy, any passion," Tyler Olander said. "We were just going through the motions. We were lucky the fans stayed."
Napier hit a jump shot from just inside the arc to ignite UConn in the second half, and they went on a 10-0 to get back in the game, the only stretch in which they played the kind of up-tempo game they prefer. When Boatright (17 points) hit a three-pointer to put the Huskies ahead 30-29, they had scored as many points in 3 minutes as they did in the entire first half.
"We just came out too sluggish," Napier said. "We didn't come out with attitude we should have, playing our first game in Gampel [since Jan. 8]. We had to do a better job, show fans we love their support."
Once UConn pulled even, it was back and forth over the next 17 minutes. Napier tied the game at 45 on a three-pointer with 4:03 left. But Toarlyn Fitzpatrick, who had 22 points and 10 rebounds, kept finding and hitting open threes to keep the Bulls in the game.
"If you tell me we're going to hold them to 29 percent shooting," Bulls coach Stan Heath said, "… and we're going to outrebound them, and I'm thinking, 'we're leaving here with a win.'"
Down the stretch, Napier hit two free throws with 40 seconds left to put UConn ahead, but USF point guard Anthony Collins attacked the rim and scored to tie it with 11 seconds left. Ollie drew up a play for Boatright to penetrate, but the Bulls went to zone defense and stymied that. UConn settled for a long three from Napier at the buzzer, but he missed a shot similar to the one he made to beat Villanova last season. The game was tied at 52 and headed to OT.
"I've always demanded the ball at the end," Napier said. "I love those moments. I can't live with myself if I'm not the guy who takes the last shot. Then if I miss, I can't be upset with anybody but myself."
Napier, who was cited before the game with teammates R.J. Evans, Niels Giffey and Leon Tolksdorf for making the academic honor roll in the fall semester, kept on shooting. When UConn's first two possessions in OT got sloppy, he salvaged them with long threes near the end of the clock and suddenly UConn had its biggest lead, 58-52.
"We wanted to move the ball around quickly," Napier said, "It got kind of sloppy. Tyler made a great play getting to one ball. I felt like I could make the shot, so I took them.
Third time down, he made another to put UConn seven ahead and the Huskies made the necessary free throws to close it out. Napier finished 7-for-14 from the floor, his teammates 10-for-43.
"In overtime, I want to get the game over," Napier said. "I feel like I need to be more aggressive. When I have the ball in my hands, I penetrate, dish, do whatever it takes. I don't always make the right choice; at the end of the day, I'm not perfect. To be successful in life, you have to fail multiple times. I've failed so many times in my life through basketball, I just try to learn from it and do something better next time."