Published January 28. 2013 4:00AM
Hartford - When Shabazz Napier left the game with 39 seconds remaining Sunday, he received a warm ovation from the XL Center crowd.
While Napier made winning plays in the second half, the junior had plenty of help from his UConn basketball teammates.
Riding a collective team effort, UConn beat Rutgers, 66-54, in Big East action.
It was an ugly game at times. But the Huskies (13-5, 3-3) played well enough in spurts to secure a much-needed home victory.
"The game was filled with a couple of ups and downs," coach Kevin Ollie said. "But we played hard and we played aggressively on defense. I put a couple of goals on the board and achieved those.
"We improved. … It's really not about wins and losses. It's about growing as a team and improving as a team. We took some steps toward our goal."
During an eight-day break between games, UConn focused on increasing defensive intensity and rebounding. The Huskies saw an improvement in both areas, limiting Rutgers to 39 percent shooting and holding a 37-33 edge in rebounding. It was only the fifth time they've won the battle of the boards this season.
The time off also helped Napier's sore left shoulder heal. He played a terrific all-around game, finishing with a team-high 19 points, six assists and five rebounds. He scored 10 of his points in the final 8:36 and also provided valuable leadership.
"It was more than just points today," Ollie said. "It was his leadership. … He makes timely shots and makes winning plays. That's why I love this kid. He's getting better as a leader. He's improving each and every day."
Ollie also loves what junior reserve Niels Giffey did to spark the Huskies. Giffey had seven points, a career-high four steals and three rebounds.
Giffey and Napier both had momentum-turning plays during a decisive second-half run. They helped lift UConn out of an offensive funk that saw it miss 10 of its first 11 shots while turning a 27-20 halftime lead into a 30-28 deficit. The Huskies went on to convert 10 of their last 17 shots.
Aggressive defense ignited the turnaround, as Rutgers scored just one field goal in an eight and a half minute span after taking the lead. UConn forced nine of 16 turnovers after intermission.
Giffey picked off a pass and got fouled while converting a fast-break layup. He made the free throw to put UConn on top for good, 35-32, with 9:54 left.
"Those are the kind of things I can do that elevate the team," Giffey said.
Napier came to the rescue next, sinking consecutive 3-pointers to cap a 13-4 spurt and increase the lead to 41-34.
No Husky has made more big shots this season than Napier.
"Not to sound cocky but I've always had that since I was a young kid," Napier said. "I always want to be the guy to take the shot. Sometimes I make the shot, sometimes I don't. … Today I was able to make those shots."
Sophomore DeAndre Daniels (13 points, seven rebounds) helped finish off the Scarlet Knights (12-7, 3-5). He hit a put-back with 4:04 left for UConn's first second chance points of the game and converted a steal into a dunk for a 52-43 lead.
"We came out a little sluggish in the second half…," Daniels said. "We picked it up and played some defense in the second half."
The Huskies closed out the game from there. Sophomore Ryan Boatright, who played only eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, had 15 points. Reserve Enosch Wolf (three blocks) was a physical presence under the basket.
With the win, UConn snapped a season-high two-game losing streak.
"The defensive effort is one thing that we stressed throughout this week of practice, and I thought we got it from everybody," Ollie said. "It was a team win… Everybody who played contributed. It's good to get off the schneid and get a win, especially after a long time off. The kids played hard and played with a lot of heart."