Shabazz Napier saves UConn’s season for at least another day

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Shabazz Napier caught quite a bit of heat over the last couple of days.

It was bad enough when he decided to pop off in UConn’s post game press conference after their 79-64 loss to then-No. 13 Marquette, but then on Monday word leaked that Napier — who has been overly critical of his team’s lack of leadership this season — would be sitting out the game with an injury that has been bothering him all season long.

In the end, the sophomore point guard and one of UConn’s captain’s decided to play, and did he ever come up big. After Tyrone Johnson went coast-to-coast to for Villanova to tie Monday night’s game at 70 with just five seconds left in overtime, Napier answered with a 35 footer as time expired for the 73-70 win:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wA64eJEwyts%5D

Statistically speaking, Napier didn’t have anything close to his best game. He finished with just six points on 2-7 shooting, handing out four assists and turning the ball over three times.

But his body language was better. When he wasn’t in the game, he was up on the bench cheering for and directing his teammates. When he was on the court, he was trying to take control of the offense, getting UConn into their sets and trying to take control of the pace. He was moderately successful, but it was a step in the right direction; making the effort to try and be a leader at least proves that the desire to turn the season around is there.

And if there is going to be a launching point, this game is as good as any. The Huskies overcame an 18 point deficit in the first half, using a 30-7 run that turned a 26-8 deficit into a 38-33 lead. Down the stretch, Jeremy Lamb started to play like the star we all know that he is capable of being. He finished with 32 points, playing the role of Kemba for this group as the only offensive option late in the game.

There is still a ton of work to be done on this UConn team. Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi are still far to invisible for players of their ilk. Ryan Boatright, and Napier to a degree, need a healthy dose of decision-making. Leadership and confidence and cohesiveness are all still lacking. Simply put, a win over a struggling Villanova team doesn’t change anything about the way I felt when I wrote this today.

And with Syracuse bearing down on the Huskies on Saturday, any good that was done with this win can be vanquished with one more lousy performance.

But if UConn is going to get their season back on track, the change has to happen at some point. There has to be a first step somewhere. Let’s see if this was it.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.