ARLINGTON, Texas -- It had been long Monday for Shabazz Napier, waiting to end his quest.
Ray Allen, the Miami Heat veteran and former Connecticut star, had pulled him aside for a brief talk.
“I told him, 'People know you are and people love you,' ” Allen said. “I told him, 'Guys in my locker room talk about you, not because of your scoring but the way you’ve led this team.”His mother had texted him.
“Win or lose, I’m proud of you,” Carmen Velasquez told him.
He had lay in bed thinking of what he would say later that night when someone handed his team the championship trophy. He decided it would be that this is what happens when someone bans Connecticut, and keeps the Huskies from the postseason they love.
“I’m being real humble and not trying to be cocky,” he would say hours later. “When you believe something so much, you understand what may happen. I told myself, if I was on that podium I was going to say that.”
Tipoff neared at last. One final time, Napier called the Huskies together, just before the last college basketball game of his life. He huddled them around, delivered his message, and then nodded.
“He told us that we’ve got this,” Phillip Nolan said. “He did that before every game.”
They listened to him. They always do.
“He bleeds blue. He bleeds UConn,” Niels Giffey would say later.
Nolan moved to the center circle, face to face with Kentucky’s Julius Randle. It was time. The ball went up ...
Three hours later, the confetti of championship dreams fell upon the Connecticut Huskies. They had outgritted Kentucky 60-54 in a game that was seldom pretty, unless one finds sheer will beautiful. “Will,” Napier concurred, “is what we have.”
They had shown what they were all about. How those eight defeats didn’t matter. How losing three times to Louisville and twice to SMU didn’t matter. How being unable to even play in the tournament last year because of academic sanctions involving earlier teams did not matter.
“When you prevent us from trying to go to the postseason and it wasn’t our fault,” Napier said, “we worked since that day on.”
Monday was no fluke. But at the end, they were exhausted, enduring one charge after another, as Kentucky’s big bodies kept coming. “We just out-toughed them,” Giffey said.
The team kept on the outside looking in just a year ago was champion. No wonder, the emotion all around.
Ryan Boatright went to one knee and pointed to the sky to honor a lost friend. Then he spoke of what made this team work. “If you’ve got each other’s back,” he said, “anything is possible.”
Head coach Kevin Ollie found his mother, who is fighting breast cancer. “I know she is fighting,” he said. “Just to see her smile is real special to me.”
Former head coach Jim Calhoun watched from the sideline, taking in the celebration of the young coach he mentored and some of the players he recruited.
“I’ve got two sons and six grandchildren. I know what a proud papa must feel like,” he said. “That’s exactly what I feel like.”
A mother and son hugged. Velasquez and Napier, who came back because he promised her he would graduate. The boy who had grown up enduring the struggles of a single-parent home stood atop his world.
“It’s a special feeling. I love my mom so much,” he said through tears. “She always believed in me. I just wanted to go out there and make her proud.
“There are setbacks around the world. You can’t let it hold you down. You’ve got to let positive people push you. Not a lot of kids see that.”
He could have transferred two years ago when the ban was announced. He could have left last year for the NBA. This night could never have happened. But he didn’t, and it did.
“I knew he wasn’t going nowhere,” his mother said about two years ago. “He loves basketball too much. He would sleep with a ball when he was young.”
And so he stayed to not just play, but lead. “He does that 24/7,” Giffey said.
Such as when the Huskies lost to Louisville the first time this season. “I said, 'Everybody pick your head up,” Napier remembered. “At the end of the day, we’re going to be the team that’s going to be holding up that trophy. I promise you.”
He led the Huskies right to the podium Monday night. At the end, having played 39 minutes, he seemed to have little left. But he would not let go of Kentucky. None of them would.
“All the trials and tribulations we’ve been through prepared us for this moment,” Giffey said.
“We had a saying,” Boatright said. “The only way were going out of here with a loss was in a box. We left everything on the floor.”
Together, Boatright and Napier had used their quickness and resolve to make life difficult for the Harrison brothers, such as they had done to Florida’s backcourt. The Harrisons had 15 points. Napier and Boatright had 36.
Never mind they were giving up five inches. Never mind Napier was on fumes. Never mind Boatright tweaked his ankle in the second half.
“We’re not going to back down to nobody,” Boatright said. “To get to the rim, you’ve got to get past us.
“My ankle? It was hurting but we worked too hard and we put in too much work. I wasn’t going to let a little ankle sprain with nine minutes left in the championship keep me from being out there to fight with my brothers.”
That was this Connecticut team. Matter of fact, that’s been a lot of Connecticut teams, with four titles in 16 years. Move over Duke. And we haven’t even mentioned the women’s team yet.
“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas,” Ollie said. “And I was like, 'No we’re not, we’re UConn.’ I mean, this is what we do. We were born for this. We’re bred to cut down nets. We’re not chasing championships, championships are chasing us.”
But someone out there on the court has to keep all that destiny together. Monday night, he was wearing No. 13.
How would Ollie remember Shabazz Napier?
“As a leader. Sacrifice. Toughness. Just whatever you want as a point guard, winner.
“But I keep telling Shabazz, I keep telling them all, with struggle is progress. You can’t have progress without struggle. And just to keep fighting.”
The Connecticut Huskies fought the last remarkable three weeks, until there was nobody left to beat.
Napier emotional after victory