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.

Boum, Jones lead No. 13 Xavier over No. 19 UConn, 82-79

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STORRS, Conn. – Souley Boum scored 21 points, Colby Jones added 20 and No. 13 Xavier went on the road and held off No. 19 Connecticut 82-79 Wednesday night.

The win was the 13th in 14 games for the Musketeers (17-4, 9-1 Big East) and it gave them a season sweep over the struggling Huskies (16-6, 5-6).

Jack Nunge had 12 points and Jerome Hunter added 11 for Xavier, which led by 17 in the first half and 39-24 at halftime.

Jordan Hawkins scored 26 of his 28 points in the second half for UConn, leading a comeback that fell just short.

Tristen Newton added 23 points for the Huskies, who won their first 14 games this season but have dropped six of eight since.

The Musketeers never trailed but had to withstand UConn runs that cut the lead to a single point four times in the second half.

A three-point play from Hawkins made it 78-77 with 2:40 left. But a second-chance layup from Nunge put the lead at 80-77 just over a minute later.

Newton was fouled with two seconds left by Desmond Claude, but his apparent attempt to miss his second free throw went into the basket.

Boum then hit two free throws at the other end, and Newton’s final attempt from just beyond halfcourt was well short.

Xavier jumped out to a 9-0 lead as UConn missed its first nine shots.

A 3-pointer from Zach Freemantle gave the Musketeers their first double-digit lead at 20-9, and another from Jones pushed it to 35-18.

BIG PICTURE

Xavier: The Musketeers lead the Big East, and the win over UConn was their ninth conference victory this season, eclipsing their total from last season.

UConn: The Huskies came in with a 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion dating to February 2021. They fell to 1-4 against the four teams in front of them in the Big East standings. The lone win came at Gampel against Creighton.

UP NEXT

Xavier: The Musketeers continue their road trip with a visit to Creighton on Saturday.

UConn: Doesn’t play again until next Tuesday, when the Huskies visit DePaul.

No. 12 Iowa State holds on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
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AMES, Iowa – Jaren Holmes matched his season high with 23 points as No. 12 Iowa State held on to beat No. 5 Kansas State 80-76 on Tuesday night.

The Cyclones (15-4, 6-2 Big 12) moved into a three-way tie atop the conference standings with the Wildcats and Texas.

Gabe Kalscheur added 19 points for Iowa State. Osun Osunniyi finished with 16.

Markquis Nowell led Kansas State (17-3, 6-2) with 23 points.

A 3-pointer from Holmes gave Iowa State a 59-49 advantage with 8:12 remaining. Kansas State responded with a 10-1 run to trim the margin to 60-59.

Caleb Grill’s 3-pointer steadied the Cyclones and pushed the lead back to 63-59 with five minutes left.

Free throws by Osunniyi, Grill and Holmes sealed the victory in the final 24 seconds.

The first half featured eight lead changes and ended with Kansas State up 33-31.

A 3-pointer by Kalscheur ignited an early 9-0 run for the Cyclones and helped them build a 19-14 lead. Iowa State made just one of nine 3-point tries in the first 20 minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Kansas State was trying to extend its best start to a season since 1961-62.

Iowa State improved to 11-0 at home. The Cyclones have not lost back-to-back games this season.

UP NEXT

Kansas State hosts Florida on Saturday as part of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

Iowa State travels to Missouri on Saturday.

Georgetown snaps 29-game conference losing streak

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WASHINGTON – Primo Spears scored 21 points and Georgetown snapped a 29-game conference losing streak with an 81-76 victory over DePaul on Tuesday night.

Georgetown (6-15, 1-9) won its first Big East game since March 13, 2021, ending the longest skid in the history of the conference. The Hoyas also ended a 10-game losing streak this season.

Spears also contributed six assists for the Hoyas. Akok Akok scored 12 points and added six rebounds and four blocks and Brandon Murray recorded 12 points.

Umoja Gibson led the Blue Demons (9-12, 3-7) in scoring, finishing with 24 points, four assists and three steals. Javan Johnson added 13 points.

Spears scored nine points in the first half and Georgetown went into the break trailing 37-36. Georgetown used a 10-0 run in the second half to build a 12-point lead at 75-63 with 1:39 remaining.

Nance scores 21 as North Carolina survives Syracuse, 72-68

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
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SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Pete Nance scored 21 points, capped by a dunk with 19 seconds left that put North Carolina in front for good as the Tar Heels pulled out a hard-fought, 72-68 battle with Syracuse on Tuesday night.

Joe Girard hit from beyond the arc to put Syracuse up, 68-66 with 1:28 left, but after Nance hit the first of two free throws to get North Carolina within one, he missed the second free throw and in the scramble to gather in the rebound, the ball caromed toward the end line and Girard dove to save it. Instead, he flicked the ball right to Nance, who dunked for the lead.

Judah Mintz tried to drive the lane for a go-ahead layup but was called for an offensive foul that was upgraded to a flagrant foul. North Carolina took possession and Caleb Love converted three straight free throws to put the game away.

Armando Bacot scored 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds with four assists for North Carolina (15-6, 7-3 Atlantic Coast Conference). Love finished with 15 points and five assists.

Girard hit 4 of 9 from beyond the arc and finished with 18 points to lead Syracuse (13-8, 6-4). Mintz scored 17 points and had three steals and Chris Bell hit 3 of 5 from deep and finished with 15 points.

North Carolina has a week off before playing host to Pitt on Feb. 1. Syracuse plays at Virginia Tech on Saturday.

Green Bay fires Will Ryan after 11th straight loss

Robert Edwards-USA TODAY Sports
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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Green Bay fired Will Ryan three days after the Phoenix suffered their 11th consecutive loss.

Ryan, the son of former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, posted a 15-61 record in 2 1/2 seasons. Freddie Owens, who had been an assistant coach on Ryan’s staff, will be interim head coach for the rest of the season.

“UW-Green Bay is committed to continuing its legacy as an outstanding Division I athletics program in the future, and Phoenix men’s basketball needs to help lead the way as we work to elevate all of our programs and be a shining light for this region and beyond,” athletic director Josh Moon said in a news release announcing the move.

Moon thanked Ryan and his family for their contributions to the program and said that “we wish him all the best in his future endeavors.”

Stadium first reported Ryan’s firing.

Green Bay dropped to 2-19 overall and 1-9 in the Horizon League with a 72-38 home loss to Robert Morris.

Ryan was hired by Green Bay after going 14-13 in his lone season as the head coach at Division II program Wheeling (West Virginia). Green Bay went 8-17 in Ryan’s debut season and finished 5-25 last year.

Ryan had taken over for Linc Darner, who went 92-80 and posted a winning record in four of his five seasons.