By Neill Ostrout
BUFFALO, N.Y. _ He isn’t Superman. He isn’t Batman. And he isn’t Kemba Walker.
But UConn basketball fans wouldn’t trade Shabazz Napier right now for the Man of Steel, the Caped Crusader or even their home-grown superhero from four years ago.
That’s the kind of roll Napier was on Saturday.
Behind Napier the seventh-seeded Huskies bounced No. 2 Villanova 77-65 late Saturday night in NCAA Tournament play before 19,290 fans at the First Niagara Center.
After missing 12 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, Napier scored 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, hitting a flurry of long-range shots to frustrate the Wildcats and a circus layup on a bum wheel to finish off them off.
“He goes out there and plays,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “I told you on many occasions he does whatever we need to win. If that’s scoring a scoop shot or being my unpaid coach for 12 minutes, that’s what he does.”
Or, as Villanova coach Jay Wright put it: “Napier was just awesome.”
UConn moves on to Sweet 16 play at Madison Square Garden next week. The Huskies will face the winner of today’s North Carolina-Iowa State on Friday in New York.
The Huskies will make their 17th trip to the Sweet 16, but just their fourth under a coach other than Jim Calhoun. The last time UConn advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament with someone other than Calhoun at the helm was 1976 when Dee Rowe’s Huskies made the regional semifinals.
UConn (28-8) also was helped by Lasan Kromah’s 12 points, as well as 11 each from Ryan Boatright, Terrence Samuel and DeAndre Daniels. Niels Giffey hauled down a career-high 11 rebounds.
Ryan Arcidiacono led Villanova (29-5) with 18 points. James Bell added 14.
On the tail end of their NCAA doubleheader against schools from Philadelphia the Huskies were forced to battle back against Villanova in much the same way they did against St. Joseph’s two days earlier. UConn fell behind by 10 points quickly, but rallied with a 14-0 run with Napier on the bench.
Saturday was the 67th game between the former conference rivals but their first in the NCAA Tournament. It certainly was worth the wait, at least for Husky fans.
Villanova, which relied heavily on the 3-point shot this season, was just 8-of-42 from behind arc in its previous two games. The Wildcats made a season-low four against Seton Hall in their Big East Tournament loss and hit only four again in Thursday’s NCAA opener against Milwaukee.
But they bounced back nicely against the Huskies, making 11 from that distance.
Nova connected on four 3-pointers in the opening four minutes of the second half, taking a 36-35 lead on the second of James Bell’s consecutive triples.
But the Huskies were ready for a shooting contest. Daniels, Kromah and, obviously, Napier, were up to the challenge.
UConn was already up 45-40 when Napier pulled up from some 27 feet away and buried the shot. After a Nova miss, Napier shot from about eight inches closer and swished another one.
“He was just unbelievable that second half,” Ollie said. “You know, 21 points, crucial three’s, dagger three’s. It looked like he was 30 feet out and just making them with the utmost confidence in the world.”
Napier had scored just 10 points in three previous games against the Wildcats but managed to hit that number early in the second half. He made nine of his 13 shots from the floor, including a 4-for-8 effort from long range.
“I wanted to be aggressive. I haven’t been shooting the ball great but I’ve been talking to coach (Jim) Calhoun and he’s been telling me ‘I’m shooting flat. I’m not shooting high enough,’ ” Napier said. “I missed a few but I felt like they all felt good.”
Not long after Napier’s shooting display, he suffered an injury that to some looked as if it might ruin the Huskies’ party. Napier said he was kicked in his right shin by Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard while making a move toward the basket.
“The pain was just excruciating. I couldn’t really put pressure on it,” Napier said.
UConn trainer James Doran tested Napier’s leg and sprayed some “biofreeze” on the injury, which Napier termed “a deep bruise.”
Napier missed just under one minute of game action. Soon after returning he scored on a drive to the basket and flip off the glass that drew shouts of glee from the UConn fans in the building and put the Huskies up 60-51.
Villanova scored the game’s first seven points and at first seemed like it would pull away. And when Napier picked up two fouls in the first eight minutes, the Huskies appeared to be in even hotter water.
But the Huskies flourished without their star, using a smaller lineup that frustrated the Wildcats at both ends of the floor. A Hilliard 3-pointer put Villanova up 10 just after Napier exited, though that would be the last offensive highlight for the Wildcats for a long stretch.
“In a game like that, you have to take advantage of that,” Wright said of Napier’s absence. “Which we didn’t.”
Samuel replaced Napier in the lineup. Although the freshman missed a layup soon after entering, his pressure defense and attacking style of offense helped UConn score 14 straight points.
Kromah had five points in the run, including a 3-pointer that put UConn up 23-20. A Giffey shot in the lane soon after made it 25-20.
Villanova went nearly 10 minutes without scoring and more than 11 minutes without a field goal, missing 10 straight shots. Still, a small, late rally that was punctuated with an Arcidiacono 3-pointer in the final seconds left the Wildcats down just 25-24 at the half.
It was the fewest points Villanova has scored in the first half all season.