Hartford - Overtime brings out the fight in the UConn Huskies.
And extra time also brings out the beast in junior Shabazz Napier, Mr. Big Shot.
UConn finally broke free of a smothering Cincinnati defense, scoring as many points in overtime (18) as in the entire second half. Napier scored 11 of those points, leading the Huskies to a 73-66 victory in the final XL Center game this season. He finished with a game-high 27 overall.
"It was a great, gutty win," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "The overtime was terrific. ? They hung in there and they fought. It was a grind-it-out game and we proved that we can win these types of games, once again."
The Huskies improved to 4-1 in overtime.
Napier's overtime numbers this season are quite impressive: 46 points while converting 9 of 14 from the field, including 8 of 12 from 3-point range, and 20 of 22 free throws.
Those heroics put Napier right in the running for Big East player of the year honors. But he doesn't want to hear anything about that.
"I try my best not to deal with individual awards," Napier said. "That's not how I was brought up. ? I'm a point guard. I'm all about the team."
Napier has Ollie's vote.
"We've got a lot of great players in the league, but he's right there," Ollie said. "He's got to keep performing. If he keeps playing like this, he deserves to be the Big East player of the year."
Napier's tough, off-balance runner with 41 seconds left forced overtime and then he buried three straight 3-pointers to push UConn in front, 66-60, with one minute left. The Huskies iced the win from the foul line, sinking 9 of 11 in the extra session.
The Huskies (18-7, 8-5) equaled last year's Big East win total with five games to go.
Napier's teammates also played a major role in the win.
Sophomore DeAndre Daniels had a strong all-around game, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds and a career-high tying four blocks while freshman Omar Calhoun shook off a sore right wrist to chip in 10 points and six rebounds. Sophomore Ryan Boatright rebounded from his dreadful showing in Saturday's loss to Villanova, scoring nine points and playing terrific defense on Cashmere Wright, who went scoreless after firing in 10 points in the first half.
The Huskies followed their winning formula, making their free throws (21-for-27) and taking care of the basketball (6 turnovers) to overcome a big rebounding deficit (44-28).
The Big East game was tight throughout, as neither team led by more than seven points.
UConn pulled ahead 37-34 at the break. The second half resembled a tractor pull, as points were hard to come by. The Huskies endured an 8-minute, 51-second scoreless drought, but tough defense prevented the Bearcats (19-8, 7-7) from taking charge.
When Tyler Olander's dunk finally ended the funk, the Huskies had a 45-43 lead.
The Bearcats also came to life, building a 53-47 lead with 4:21 left. But Calhoun hit a jumper in the lane to start the comeback. Then Daniels buried a 3-pointer and Napier hit a free throw to forge a 53-all tie at the 1:30 mark.
Titus Rubles scored off an offensive rebound to give Cincinnati a 55-53 edge. The Bearcats scored 34 points in the paint overall and had 17 offensive rebounds.
"When we gave offensive rebounds, we didn't hang our heads," Ollie said. "We got back in the fight. And that's what I love about this team."
UConn called time out and called a play for Napier.
Napier drove the left side, found resistance, but managed to convert a tough runner to tie the score at 55. After Boatright forced a turnover, Napier missed a contested runner before the buzzer. He didn't misfire in overtime, burying one of his six 3-pointers to put UConn ahead for good, 58-55.
"It was a huge win because we got right back on track going into DePaul (Saturday)," Boatright said. "It would have been devastating for us to drop two straight."