Published March 21. 2014 4:00AM Updated March 21. 2014 11:51AM
UConn rallies to force overtime then Napier leads them to victory
Buffalo, N.Y. - Experience has taught the Huskies to never give in.
Their competitive heart just kept beating on Thursday night. They kept fighting until adding another impressive victory to their growing resume of late game thrillers.
It took overtime before seventh-seeded UConn emerged with an electrifying 89-81 win over No. 10 Saint Joseph's University in an NCAA tournament opener at First Niagara Center.
"We were down," senior Shabazz Napier said. "We had all the excuses to give up. But guys were just willing each other. The resiliency that we had was just tremendous.
"That's what you've got to do when you come to these tournaments. You've got to just keep pushing along because anything can happen. I'm just so proud of my guys."
Napier played like an All-American while shaking off a sub-par shooting night (7-for-22). He scored 24 points, including nine of UConn's 19 points in overtime, and also led the team in rebounding (8), assists (6) and steals (3).
Junior DeAndre Daniels chipped in 18 points and junior Ryan Boatright added 17 points. The Huskies (27-8) advance to Saturday's third round game second-seeded Villanova, which beat No. 15 Milwaukee 73-53. The game is scheduled to begin at 9:40 p.m.
They forged a comeback from a 40-35 halftime deficit by buckling down on defense, finally slowing down the Hawks who shot a sizzling 56 percent in the first 20 minutes before cooling off a bit.
Then they converted their free throws, sinking 15 of 16 in overtime to close out the win. They took the lead for good (75-73) on freshman Amida Brimah's two free throws with 3:10 left. Brimah (nine points, six rebounds) played a pivotal role in his first NCAA game.
"It was a great game by both teams," said Kevin Ollie, who earned his first NCAA win as a head coach. "Unfortunately, someone had to lose. I'm just glad we came out on top. The guys played hard. They played with grit. They played with grind.
"At the end of the day, we wanted to out-work our opponent. It took a little longer than I thought, but fortunately, we got it done at the end."
This was a real thrill ride.
Saint Joseph's (24-10) seized control of the game with an efficient offense that masterfully found open shooters late in the shot clock. Senior sharp-shooter Langston Galloway (25 points) and Halil Kanacevic (12 points, seven rebounds, five assists), a talented all-around big man, fueled the Hawks' attack. But Kanacevic fouled out early in overtime.
The Huskies played from behind for nearly the entire second half, facing a five-point deficit at the 5:23 mark. When Saint Joe's Chris Wilson hit two free throws, UConn was staring at a 68-67 deficit with 49 seconds left.
Then an unlikely hero came to the rescue.
Brimah grabbed an offensive rebound and converted a short hook while drawing a foul. Showing poise beyond his years, he made the free throw to tie the game at 70-all with 39 seconds remaining.
"That's one of the reasons why I came here - to help my teammates," Brimah said. "I just feel good that I'm helping my team."
Saint Joseph's set up for a potential game-winning shot, but UConn's defense forced Galloway into a bad shot, leading to a shot clock violation.
After a timeout, UConn inbounded the ball with 2.7 seconds left and nearly executed a great play. Daniels caught the long inbounds pass near mid-court and hit a streaking Napier, whose flying jump shot just inside the 3-point line bounced off the rim.
UConn and Napier owned overtime.
After Brimah's two free throws put UConn ahead 75-73, Napier went to work, scoring seven straight points.
Napier scored on a highlight reel play, splitting the defense on a drive down the lane and flipping in a tough shot while drawing contact. His free throw pushed the lead to 80-73 with 1:20 left.
Before sinking that acrobatic shot, Napier had hit just 6 of 21 field goals.
"I've been playing basketball since I was five and a half," Napier said. "Just because I missed two, three shots, doesn't mean I'm not going to take the next one with a lot of confidence."
UConn escaped with a memorable win.