Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Shabazz Has Pizazz, and Garden Loves It

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Shabazz Has Pizazz, and Garden Loves It

Article excerpt

NEW YORK - Everything about Shabazz Napier is fast, like winning a national championship as a freshman fast, like pushing the pace as if you're a sprinter fast, like crossover dribbles in an eye blink fast. Connecticut's senior guard was at his speedy best Friday night, racing up and down a Madison Square Garden court that may have looked unrecognizable (thanks to NCAA sanitization) but for Napier, felt like home swish home.

The fast-moving Huskies are officially among the NCAA tournament's last eight standing, outlasting feisty Iowa State, 81- 76, and leaving a full-throated, UConn-heavy Garden crowd breathless and spent by the end of the Sweet 16 matchup. And Napier was their driving force, his early nothing-but-net three-pointers and late no- look passes pushing the Huskies everywhere they needed to be, reminding everyone who might have forgotten how much this team loves this building.

Napier never forgot, not when his program was pushed out of the conference so identified with the Garden's past, not when his program was sanctioned out of postseason play, not when he walked into a building he admitted after the game he considers "kind of our third home, Gampel being the first and XL being the second." So now, back at the Garden and back in the national spotlight, Napier is moving faster than ever. He gets it. He understands how close that flickering college career dissipation light is to him now, turning this final college season into a straight run toward a championship finish line he's already proven he can cross.

"Every day. Every day. Every single game that we have, I think, 'This could be it,'" he said in the UConn locker room, his jersey still plastered to his wiry frame. Driven by reality, he hasn't taken his foot off the pedal since the season started.

"I know Shabazz is ready," head coach Kevin Ollie said on Thursday, after his team had taken the Garden floor for practice. "He's been ready the whole season. He's been ready since last year when we couldn't go to the NCAA tournament. He's not scared of this moment."

Scared? How about energized? How about challenged? How about excited?

After two years of crawling, two years of bad play, broken dreams, a coaching change and a year of NCAA sanctions, two years of frustration, disappointment and questions about the future of the once-dominant program, Napier couldn't wait to run free. And what better place than the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden, than the vaunted stage of the NCAA tournament, to erase the pain of those two years. He'd already totaled 49 points in two opening tournament games, already totaled 47 points in two games at the Garden early this season, winning the 2K Sports Classic.

Now, with a chance to move one step closer to the Final Four, he was ready to put those two efforts together. What better way to prove you made the right decision to stay in Storrs after that fabulous freshman year, to stick with the program that would shift coaches two seasons later from the legendary but ailing Jim Calhoun to his protege Ollie, that was about to spend the 2013 season in the darkness of sanctions that would rob them of the opportunity to compete in their final Big East tournament at MSG, that was about to get shut out of the reconfigured Big East, left to carry the torch for the leftover American Athletic Conference. …

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