By Neill Ostrout
PISCATAWAY, N.J. _ Shabazz Napier missed a free throw before the clock had even begun its countdown. That’s not usually a sign that a player is going to have a monster game.
But the UConn senior guard bounced back from a rough first half to produce a dominant second half as the Huskies beat Rutgers 82-71 Saturday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center.
After missing nine of his first 11 shots from the floor _ and missing the first of two rare technical foul free throws before the opening tip _ Napier scored 20 of his game-high 26 points in the second half as the Huskies pulled away.
“He drives me crazy sometimes but that’s the guy I’m going to count on. I’m going to put the ball in his hands,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “I know he’s going to make a couple mistakes here and there but I know he’s going to be there for me and he’s going to be rock solid when I need him the most.”
Ryan Boatright, returning after a one-game absence, added 12 points for UConn (16-4, 4-3). Amida Brimah had 10 points and eight rebounds.
Kadeem Jack led Rutgers (8-12, 2-5) with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
In what was the Huskies’ last trip to the Rutgers campus for the foreseeable future _ Rutgers departs the American Athletic Conference for the Big Ten after this season _ a sellout crowd of 8,006 fans packed the building commonly known as the RAC. They witnessed UConn’s 20th win in 22 games between the schools since the Knights joined the Big East.
The win was UConn’s fifth in its last six games and pushed the Huskies over the .500 mark in league play.
“That was the biggest thing for us. It was a pivotal game for us. We had to get over .500,” Napier said.
Napier, of course, had a lot to do with UConn reaching that goal.
Trailing by five points at the half, Rutgers hit consecutive 3-pointers to start the second half and took a 42-41 lead. The Knights scored again after Ollie called time out and led 44-41.
At that point, Napier took over.
From the 15:12 mark in the second half until there was 3:18 left in the game, Napier scored 20 points. As a team, Rutgers had 18.
“The biggest thing was I had to get to the free throw line. I did that and it got my confidence back,” said Napier, who has scored 84 points over his last three games. “As a shooter, that’s the biggest thing. You need to see the ball go in the hoop. That got my confidence up and I was able to do other things with the ball.”
Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan, who coached Ollie for one season when the two were with the NBA’s New Jersey Nets, said Ollie used Napier like many coaches in the NBA would.
“When they open the floor up like that and a great player does his thing, it’s very frustrating,” Jordan said. “The frustration got to us a little bit and we didn’t keep our poise.”
A 9-0 run, which started with a 3-pointer by Niels Giffey, gave the Huskies an early 18-8 lead and they seemed to be cruising.
With four minutes left in the first half UConn forward DeAndre Daniels fell over Boatright after contesting a shot by Rutgers. He landed awkwardly and immediately began to writhe in pain.
Daniels was helped off the court by a teammate and UConn trainer James Doran, careful not to put any weight on his right leg, and later taken to the locker room by Doran and Jeff Anderson, UConn’s team doctor.
The Huskies were still up 10 after Daniels’ exit but Rutgers scored the final five points in the half and was down just 41-36 at the break.
The visitors were in front halfway through despite the fact that Napier and Boatright were a combined 2-for-11 from the floor. Brimah had 10 points and five rebounds by halftime.
Daniels did not start the second half on the floor but re-entered the game with 13:58 left and played regularly until the finish.
“I didn’t think it was too serious. I knew I twisted my ankle pretty bad,” Daniels said. “We went to the back and they tested it out, told me it was a high ankle sprain. They taped me and then asked me if I wanted to sit out. I said ‘Nah.’ I just wanted to fight through it and do anything I needed to help my team get a win today.”
Omar Calhoun suffered a sprained ankle in UConn’s last game and was held out of Saturday’s game.
Ollie said he’s hopeful both Daniels and Calhoun will be able to play when the Huskies return to the court Thursday against Houston.