It’s been a process, but Shabazz Napier’s grown into his leadership role

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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — It’s Friday night and Madison Square Garden’s packed. Two boisterous fan bases share the stands, ensuring that every basket, every call, gets equal parts cheers and jeers as two top 25 programs trade haymakers in a thrilling, gnaw-your-nails-to-the-quick instant classic on national television.

For some, an environment like that in a game this early in the season could be overwhelming, but not for Shabazz Napier. November basketball doesn’t get to him. UConn may have been bounced in the opening round of the 2012 NCAA tournament and they may have been relegated to the sidelines of the 2013 NCAA tournament, but remember, Napier’s got a national title ring on his finger. He won a Big East tournament title in this very building. He shared a back court with Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb back in 2011, if you recall.

The moment has never gotten to Napier, which is why it shouldn’t surprise you that he made seemingly every big shot for the No. 18 Huskies in their 59-58 win over Indiana, finishing with 27 points and three assists on 10-for-14 shooting. Four times in the final five minutes, Napier made the play that gave the Huskies the lead. There was the three he hit with 4:29 left. There was the three he set up for Deandre Daniels with 3:32 left. There was the jumper he hit with an Indiana defender’s hand in his face with 2:32 left. And, lastly, there was the acrobatic layup he made with 1:35 left that turned out to be the game-winner.

UConn stopped running offense in the second half. Head coach Kevin Ollie put the ball — put his trust, all of it — in the hands of his senior point guard, running him off of ball-screen after ball-screen, and Napier delivered.

“That’s that Mission Hill coming out of him, that Boston. He’s a fighter,” Ollie said after the game. “He relishes the moment. Some people run away form it, but he embraces it.”

That’s not exactly new. Napier has developed a reputation for being a guy that hits big shots in big moments, but that’s not the only reputation that he has built for himself.

Napier’s long been considered a streaky scorer, a guy that can shoot you into a game when he gets into a rhythm and can just as easily shoot you out of a game when he’s struggling. As a sophomore, Napier replaced Kemba at the point for a team that entered the season ranked in the top five in the country. But the Huskies put together one of the most disappointing seasons in program history, struggling their way through a year where they finished under .500 in the Big East and got knocked out of the NCAA tournament in the 8-9 game.

And while it’s unfair to pin the blame for those struggles on Napier, he certainly didn’t do the Huskies any favors as a boom-or-bust scoring guard on a team that needed a steady, sure-handed leader running the show. In six of his first 12 games that season, Napier scored more than 20 points. The other six? He scored in the single-digits. At one point, he missed 16 straight shots from the field. Napier was trying to outwardly prove that he was a leader, but in reality he was a player whose confidence was in the gutter if he missed his first couple of shots or committed a turnover or two.

That’s a problem. How can you be a leader when you can’t move past a mistake that you made six possessions ago?

On Friday night, Napier made plenty of mistakes. He finished with seven turnovers. He went just 3-for-7 from the free throw line, with three of those misses coming in the final ten minutes. In fact, I would argue that Napier really didn’t play all that well for much of the game. He finished with 11 points in the first half because he hit two threes in the final minute to give UConn a 30-24 lead at the break. And he didn’t play his best in the second half until Indiana started to take control midway through the final stanza.

“When I miss free throws, that’s one thing I worry about most,” Napier said. “That and turnovers. Sometimes when I miss them, my head wanders off. Coach Ollie, he says to just forget about it, it happens.”

In the past, that didn’t always happen.

On Friday night, it did.

And that, more than anything, is where Napier has grown as a player.

He’s always been able to score. He’s always had the ability to create separation in one-on-one situations. He’s always had the ball on a string, the shiftiness and And-1 mixtape flair that will leave defenders looking silly. Where he’s grown is his ability to channel that talent, to become a leader, a steadying influence instead of an infuriating one.

“He doesn’t get down on himself,” Ollie said. “I told him [his leadership is] a special gift, and for him to really get to that next level, he needs to start giving away that gift. It’s not about the buckets. It’s about the leadership. He didn’t do that earlier in his career, and now he’s doing it.”

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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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

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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.