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Napier's big second half ignites UConn

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published January 26. 2014 4:00AM   Updated January 26. 2014 9:35PM
Mel Evans/AP Photo
Rutgers guard Craig Brown, left, reaches in to try and steal the basketball from UConn's DeAndre Daniels during Saturday night's AAC game in Piscataway, N.J. The Huskies beat the Scarlet Knights 82-71.

Piscataway, N.J. - UConn stared down adversity on Saturday night.

The Huskies never blinked.

They fought through foul trouble, injuries and a slow start from their best player to win for the fifth time in the last six games.

Riding senior Shabazz Napier's marvelous second-half performance, when he scored 20 of his game-high 26 points, UConn scored an 82-71 victory over Rutgers at the Rutgers Athletic Center and climbed over .500 in American Athletic Conference play for the first time this season.

"We just gutted it out," coach Kevin Ollie said. "Bazz was pretty amazing that the second half, scoring 20 points. But it took a team effort."

The Huskies (16-4, 4-3) displayed toughness and defensive tenacity, holding the Scarlet Knights to 32 percent (8-for-25) after intermission and only one field goal in the last nine minutes. They remain undefeated (10-0) when outrebounding an opponent, holding a 34-29 edge.

And they found a way to win when junior DeAndre Daniels left the game with 4:11 left in the first half after suffering a painful high right ankle sprain. He was helped to the bench and then to the locker room.

Daniels, who left the RAC wearing a walking boot, earned the respect of his teammates and coaching staff by returning to the game about six minutes into the second half. They already were without reserve guard Omar Calhoun who sat out with a sprained ankle.

"I didn't think it was serious," said Daniels, who had his ankle taped at halftime. "I knew I twisted my ankle pretty bad. … They asked me if I wanted to sit out and I said, 'nah. I want to fight through it and do anything that I need to to help my team win today.' "

Daniels didn't have to do much with Napier in superhero mode.

UConn watched its 41-36 halftime lead disappear when Rutgers (8-12, 2-5) opened the second half with a 6-0 run to take a 42-41 lead.

The Huskies responded. Junior Ryan Boatright (12 points), whose tight defense held Rutgers leading scorer Myles Mack to six points, put the Huskies ahead for good, 48-46, with a driving basket.

Then Napier simply took over, scoring 11 of UConn's next 13 points. He scored 20 points in the last 15:11.

After missing nine of his first 11 shots, Napier made five of his last nine. He also hit 10 of 11 free throws.

"I wasn't making shots," Napier said of his slow start. "When I don't make shots, I have to figure out how to get myself going. I got to the free throw line a lot. As a shooter, when you get to the free throw line, you learn how to get your confidence back up when you see the ball go through the hoop. That was the biggest thing in the second half."

UConn also smartly spread the floor to give Napier room to operate. Rutgers had no defensive answer.

Earlier in the game, Ollie pulled Napier from the game after an ill-advised 3-pointer. Napier had only six points at halftime.

"It was just a coach's decision," Ollie said. "I wasn't going to have him over there too long. Trust me on that. … He's just a great player."

UConn received some important offensive contributions from freshman Amida Brimah, who scored all 10 of his points in the first half and had a team-high eight rebounds overall, and graduate student Lasan Kromah (eight points).

g.keefe@theday.com

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