ARLINGTON, Tex. -- With a little bit less than eight minutes left in Monday night’s national championship game, Shabazz Napier walked on the court after a timeout and looked into the crowd of Connecticut fans and family and alumni. At that moment, Connecticut led Kentucky by only one point. At that moment, the Huskies seemed to finally be wearing down against the bigger, stronger, more hyped Kentucky team. And that Kentucky team seemed to be gaining strength.
In other words, it seemed like a tense moment. Only it wasn’t for Shabazz Napier.
He looked at the section of the Connecticut crowd -- looked at Ray Allen, various parents of players, the University of Connecticut president -- and he smiled a little bit. Then pursed his lips a little, and nodded slowly. There was absolutely no mistaking the meaning. This was the universal symbol for three words.
We’ve. Got. This.
What? How could they have this? Kentucky had come back time and again in this game. The Wildcats trailed by 15 in the first half. Came back. They had trailed by nine just three minutes earlier. They came back.
And even before this game, Kentucky had been on this magical tournament run with Aaron Harrison’s last-second shots flying in like planes at LaGuardia. And now it was a one-point game, and those Wildcat freshmen had their feet under them, and Kentucky coach John Calipari would remember thinking, ‘We’re going to win,” and that huge Kentucky throng of fans that swarmed Dallas were in all-out believe mode.
Shabazz Napier looked at the fans. He shrugged. He smiled. He nodded with the surest look he had.
We’ve. Got. This.
And, the craziest part of all: He was right.
* * *
Every now and again, you will hear coaches say that the NCAA tournament is won by guard play. That has always seemed to me one of those true but incomplete lines like “defense wins championships.” Yes. That can be true. But sometimes offense wins championships. Sometimes great big man play wins national championships.
But it is obviously true: Guard play CAN win championships if it is inspired enough. Here in Texas we saw inspired two guards -- Napier and Ryan Boatright -- command the stage not just like great basketball players but the way the greatest performers do, they commanded the stage like Richard Pryor did, like Bruce Springsteen does or Jennifer Lawrence. They were mesmerizing. You couldn’t take your eyes off of them.
“Oh boy,” the guy next to me said Monday night late in the game as Boatright dribbled with the shot clock running down and the game on the line. “This is going to be good.”
And it was good.
By now, all college basketball fans know about the brilliance of Shabazz Napier. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and he might not be that tall. He looks younger and slighter than just about anybody else on the floor, as if someone’s little brother had run on the court. He makes up for this with a conquering confidence that seems so real you can almost see it, you can almost touch it, you can’t help but wonder it fits into the overhead bin on planes.
“He has a swagger about him,” Kentucky coach John Calipari would say after the game, and you could tell that coming from Calipari there is no higher praise. People with Shabazz Napier’s confidence are hard to face because they are the true believers. They don’t seem aware of their weaknesses, it never occurs to them that losing is a possibility; they do not respond to pressure the way other people do.
Put it this way: After Connecticut lost to Louisville at home by a dozen back in January, their fourth loss in the previous nine games, Napier gathered around the team and do you know what he said to his struggling team?
Napier: “’I said ‘Keep your head up. At the end of the day,' I said, ‘We're going to be the team holding up that trophy. I promise you that.’ ”
He PROMISED them that. As he told that story, Boatright was sitting next to him and he just nodded. Yep. That’s what he said all right.
As a player, Napier has great quickness and a great shot and a special kind of intensity. But more than anything, he just has a deep faith that overpowers people. After he made his nodding guarantee to the Connecticut crowd, he promptly turned the ball over. Well, that wasn’t good. But nothing shakes his confidence. Nothing. Next time down he made a long 3-pointer that busted the spirit of those Kentucky players and silenced the Kentucky crowd.
See? We’ve. Got. This.
Boatright is even shorter than Napier and yet, if possible, his game is more physical. Boatright can actually be the most intimidating player on the floor, even if he is barely 6-feet tall. That’s because he’s a defensive whirlwind. He attacks the ball-handler, smells out passing lanes, can pickpocket the basketball from any angle at any moment. What’s scarier for any player than to just have the ball taken away from them? In the national semifinal against Florida, not only did Boatright stifle the Gators star guard Scottie Wilbekin, he left Wilbekin withered and baffled, like a tourist who had his luggage taken at the airport.
And Monday night, it was like that again only this time against the bigger and more-hyped guards of Kentucky. The Wildcats could not get into their offense for much of the game. They looked constantly winded. “To get to the rim, you’ve got to get past us,” Boatright says. “So just because you’re big, that’s not enough. You’ve got to be quick. You’ve got to get low. We’re in your way.”
Napier concurs: “We have been playing against tall people our entire life. We’re both short. We kind of understand how to maneuver our bodies.”
There was some talk afterward about how Kentucky was able to cut the Connecticut lead from 13 to 4 in the last four minutes of the first half, and how this might have been due to their zone defense or the fact they final made a couple of 3-pointers. But I suspect it had a lot to do with the fact that Boatright wasn’t on the floor -- he had picked up his second foul with, yes, four minutes left in the half. And for a time Kentucky’s offense flowed. That’s how much of a difference he made.
Boatright’s offense is not quite as bold as Napier’s but it does seem out of the same mold -- lots of quickness and the guts to challenge much bigger men. With about four minutes left in the game and Connecticut leading by just four, as mentioned, Boatright got the ball as the shot clock was winding down. He made three or four lightning quick moves and then stepped back and shot a high jump shot. The ball swished through.
“Huge play,” Calipari would say. “Boatright’s big shot, huge shot, they’re dying there and he makes a step back. ... Give them all the credit. They beat us.”
That shot put Connecticut up six and, oddly, Kentucky never really came close to winning after that. The last four minutes seemed to disappear in an instant, mostly because Calipari did not want his team to foul. What was the point of fouling? Connecticut was legendary from the free throw line the whole tournament -- they shot 88 percent from the free throw line as a team for THE WHOLE TOURNAMENT. Monday they were 10 for 10. “They weren’t going to miss,” Calipari said, and so he let the clock run and hoped for the best. It didn’t work out.
After the game ended, and Connecticut won 60-54, the Connecticut players would talk about how hungry they had been after being on probation last year, how they never lost faith even after the 33-point loss to Louisville later in the year, how their second-year coach Kevin Ollie had inspired them and driven them and made them believe. It was Connecticut’s fourth national championship in 15 years -- something no team had pulled off since John Wooden’s UCLA teams. They talked about that, too.
“Somebody told me we were Cinderellas,” Ollie would say, “And I was like: ‘No. We’re UConn.’ ”
But before all that, the game ended, and firecrackers went off, and streamers filled the air. And Shabazz Napier ran over to the Connecticut fans, that same group he had nodded to with eight minutes to go. And he shouted, “I told you! I told you!” Then he was engulfed in hugs. Well, he did tell them.