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Huskies may be forced to play without Napier

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published January 19. 2013 4:00AM

Pittsburgh - Adversity is a frequent companion of this UConn basketball team.

The Huskies began the season with a head coach without a long-term contract, a postseason ban and a shorthanded roster that included a weak frontcourt.

They've admirably dealt with those obstacles on the way to a surprisingly successful season.

Now they may face another major hurdle - playing a Big East road game without leading scorer and team leader Shabazz Napier.

Napier experienced some discomfort and was somewhat limited during a light workout late Friday afternoon at the Petersen Events Center. It was his first practice since suffering a left shoulder contusion against Louisville on Monday.

UConn will make a game-time decision on Napier's playing status for today's noon game (ESPN2) against Pittsburgh.

Coach Kevin Ollie has refused to let his team use any adversity, including Napier's injury, as an excuse.

"We find a way, like we've been doing the whole season," Ollie said on Thursday.

Ollie reminded his Huskies (12-4, 2-2) to keep the faith before leaving for Pittsburgh, ending practice Thursday with a message: Don't get on the plane without believing.

"We've just got to believe in ourselves," junior Tyler Olander said. "We've got to believe that we can win every game, beat every team on the backboard, beat them in the halfcourt and beat them in transition.

"Just believe that we're the best team on the floor and we can do a lot of things and win a lot of games."

Today's game marks the end of a challenging three-game stretch that started with an impressive win at Notre Dame last Saturday and included a loss to No. 1 Louisville.

Pittsburgh plays its usual ugly but effective brand of basketball, relying on toughness, rebounding and defense. The Panthers (14-4, 2-3) have a deep rotation, as 10 players average at least 12.6 minutes per game.

"Nothing different with coach (Jamie) Dixon's team," Ollie said. "They're going to play tough. They're going to play gritty. We've got to keep them out of transition and try to keep them in a halfcourt game and hopefully our defense will step up to the plate and be better than what we were in the second half of the Louisville game."

Louisville shredded UConn's defense, shooting 60.7 percent in the second half. Napier never was the same after suffering his shoulder injury early in the first half and the Huskies suffered a humbling 73-58 loss.

No player has meant more to the Huskies this season than Napier, who leads the team in scoring (17.1), minutes played (36.3) and steals (2.1) while ranking second in rebounds (4.4) and assists (4.1). He's never missed a game in his UConn career.

If Napier can't play, or is limited, others will be counted on to fill the void. It will mean more responsibility for freshman Omar Calhoun and reserve R.J. Evans. And the Huskies will have to really dig in on defense to make up for the lost offensive punch.

"I would just like to make sure we're sacrificing our body," Ollie said of his team's defense. "Our ball pressure has got to get better. We can't sit back and be reactionary. We have to go out with force and be aggressive."

So far, the Huskies have played well in two Big East road games. But they've yet to play before a crowd as raucous as the one at Petersen Events Center.

"We'll see if he's playing or not," Calhoun said of Napier. "As far as we go, we're a collective group. We all stay together. Ten toes in, so everyone plays a part in every win, regardless."

g.keefe@theday.com

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