Shabazz Napier sparks UConn’s win over Kentucky

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With less than 30 seconds left in their semifinal matchup against Kentucky, UConn was clinging to a 54-52 lead.

Shabazz Napier had the ball in his hands, dribbling down the shot clock before the Huskies were going to try and put Kemba Walker in a position to score. But Brandon Knight knocked the ball out of Napier’s hands and Kentucky dove on it, calling a time out.

In the huddle, the UConn coaching staff was worried about how the freshman point guard was going to react. He had been an integral part of UConn’s defense, playing a major role in holding Knight to just 6-23 shooting from the floor, and Kentucky still had one possession left with a chance to tie or win the game.

But during the timeout, Napier looked at UConn head coach Jim Calhoun and said “Coach, I’ll make it up next play”. And while he didn’t exactly make it up the next play — when DeAndre Liggins missed a 24 foot three that would have won the game — Napier buried two free throws with 1.7 seconds left that clinched a trip to the national title game for the Huskies, 56-52.

UConn was not very good offensively. Kemba Walker played what was easily his worst game in the month of March, finishing with 18 points, seven assists, and six boards on 6-15 shooting. (It should tell you just how good Kemba has been in March that 18, seven, and six is considered an off night.) The Huskies shot just 1-12 from three. They turned the ball over 15 times. They only managed to get six offensive rebounds.

“I think that offensively we struggled with a lot of open shots. Obviously, they were loading up to find Jeremy and Kemba,” Calhoun said after the game.

“I thought Kemba could have had 12, 13 assists. We missed shots we usually should make and will make.”

UConn won this game with their defense.

There was Alex Oriakhi and Charles Okwandu in the paint, holding Josh Harrellson to just six points and four rebounds. There was the combined 2-14 that DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller shot from the floor. In fact, outside of a four minute stretch to start the second half, when the Wildcats managed to score 14 points, Kentucky was downright atrocious on the offensive end.

They finished the game shooting 33.9 percent from the field. They were just 4-12 from the free-throw line. They averaged just 0.89 PPP, a number that drops all the way to 0.84 PPP if you factor out the three that Knight hit at the buzzer.

“I just think we missed a bunch of open shots,” Harrellson said. “We had good looks. Me, personally, I couldn’t knock anything down in the first half. Missed a bunch of one-footers. We had a bunch of good looks in the first half. We just couldn’t make anything.”

The best performance of the night, however, was the job that Napier did on Brandon Knight. Knight finished the game with just 17 points on 6-23 shooting from the floor. As poorly as Napier played offensively — 1-7 shooting, three turnovers — he was that good defensively.

“He played great, great defense,” Calhoun said. “Knight is a very young, good player that’s been going crazy. Tonight we call those costly points. I think that Knight is an absolutely magnificent player. But six for 23 is expensive. That’s how we look at it. We try to use that term defensively. In other words, if you take a lot of tough shots, that’s expensive because your field-goal percentage goes down and we in turn have a much better chance to win.”

Perhaps the most telling statistic for the Wildcats is that despite getting 15 offensive rebounds on the night, they were only able to score five second chance points. Combine that with the 4-12 free throw shooting, and Kentucky’s inability to capitalize on the opportunities that they had probably cost them.

I am an avid supporter of the use of advance statistics in college hoops. If you aren’t looking at Kenpom’s web site, then you aren’t truly informed about college basketball. There is so much to be learned by looking at a team or a game or a matchup through that lens. But one thing that cannot be gleaned from tempo-free stats is the ability to make a big play at a big moment.

Kenpom has yet to invent a stat for “rising to the occasion”, if you will.

And that is precisely what made the difference in tonight’s outcome.

Take, for example, a play midway through the second half. Doron Lamb looked like he had a wide open fast break layup, but Kemba chased him down and blocked the shot. Kentucky didn’t end up scoring on the possession, and the Huskies eventually won the game by one point.

That’s a relatively insignificant play. It won’t make Sportscenter. It won’t make the One Shining Moment cut. But the effect that it had on the game was enormous, and its the kind of play that is difficult to quantify on a stat sheet.

The final eight minutes of this game were filled with moments like that.

There was the steal and layup that Kemba had with just four minutes left in the game when he was clearly exhausted. There was the nifty, up-and-under lay-in that Napier had with just over two minutes left in the game. There was DeAndre Liggins stepping on the three point line when he drew a foul on Jeremy Lamb in the final minute. There was the three that Liggins missed at the end of the game that would have given Kentucky the lead in the final seconds.

And there was Napier, knocking down the two free throws at the end to seal the win.

UConn didn’t necessarily win on Saturday night because they played better or because they were the better team.

They won because they played better when it counted. The Huskies made the plays in the clutch. Kentucky didn’t.

And that is why UConn will play for the national.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

Rich Janzaruk/Herald-Times/USA TODAY NETWORK
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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

Joe Rondone/USA TODAY NETWORK
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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.