Shabazz Napier leads Connecticut past Villanova, 77-65
BUFFALO -- Connecticut is headed home, in a good sense. It is not the season-is-over type of going home. It is a return to the Sweet 16, a familiar spot for a school that has won three national titles. It is a trip back to Madison Square Garden, one of the Huskies' favorite places.
They beat an old Big East rival, Villanova, 77-65, with help from an unstoppable second-half burst from Shabazz Napier. The winners' one temporary problem was that something actually did stop Napier after he scored his 20th point.
He hobbled up the court, then to the bench, grimacing and holding his right calf. But he was able to stand outside the huddle during his team's timeouts after that. He returned with 3:24 remaining and finished with 25 points, five rebounds and three assists.
Napier was a freshman on Connecticut's 2011 national championship team, and Saturday night he took control of the game the way teammate Kemba Walker regularly did back then. Villanova tried to play him tough and seemed exasperated when he hit two long three-pointers that built an 11-point lead.
So UConn will have the honor of playing in New York City in the East Regional on Friday as the NCAA Tournament returns to the Garden after an absence of 53 years.
There had been no secret to predicting what kind of game this was going to be. That the score was 25-24 at halftime was no surprise, and the fact Connecticut was ahead was almost immaterial. These two programs have been shaped from the same clay and they figured to be close.
They had played 63 times previously (with Villanova ahead 33-30) dating to 1940-41. It was their time together in the Big East, though, that really made them rivals.
"It's going to be a battle out there. It's going to be 40 minutes of people just killing each other," Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono had said. "It's going to be a fun game."
Tense, physical and dramatic -- that always had been everyone's idea of fun before the original Big East was split up. "We got it in this year's Big East. We definitely miss some of the teams from the old Big East, but we got it just the same," Arcidiacono said.
If they had their way, these teams would have remained together for a long time. But that wasn't an option. Villanova helped form the new Big East with other schools that concentrate their athletic departments on basketball. Coach Jay Wright's team is trying to uphold the old legacy and promote a new one.
UConn had no choice but to go along with the football-playing schools into the new American Athletic Conference.
The Huskies had other issues. Academic violations had caused UConn to be banned from playing in the NCAA Tournament last year. "But like I always said, we weren't banned from loving each other and encouraging each other all the time," coach Kevin Ollie said. "That's what got us through. Coaching is overrated. It's really overrated."
In any case, each side had special feelings about not only reaching the Sweet 16 but being able to play the next round at Madison Square Garden, where so much of their reputations were burnished.
Connecticut gets the chance to burnish it some more.