ST. THOMAS, U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS — There was a sigh of relief from R.J. Evans, a deep breath followed by an audible “wooooo” as he exited the UConn locker room at about 1:15 a.m.
UConn had won 66 straight games against in-state opponents, and after No. 67 — a brutally physical, back-and-forth double-overtime thriller that ended in an 89-83 Huskies victory — Evans and his teammates could momentarily breathe easy.
Not Shabazz Napier, though. He winced as he shook his left hand, trying different maneuvers — bending his fingers, flopping his wrists — to minimize the pain.
“I got hit with an elbow,” Napier said. “I don’t know — the first overtime, I think.”
Trainer James Doran, applying some ice to the injury, quickly interjected.
“It was the second,” he said.
“I can’t remember.”
Yes, this thing was a blur for everyone involved, two-and-a-half hours of bodies crashing the boards, hitting the floor, elbows flying and words exchanged.
“I’ve got a couple of friends from that team, other than that, I can be honest with you, I don’t like that team one bit,” Napier said. “I just don’t like them because throughout the whole game we were going at it and it was kind of bad blood. At the end, one of their players who didn’t get in the game didn’t shake my hand…So he took it to another level.”
Napier, who did everything right in the game’s final 12 minutes, called it an “in-state rivalry.” And that’s where he’s wrong.
After dominating 66 straight opponents, UConn doesn’t have an in-state rival. At least not yet. But Quinnipiac, which had a 55-45 lead with 4:57 remaining, was no cake-walk. No. 67 had to be earned.
Here’s what people will remember about this game: For the second time in three nights, Shabazz Napier achieved this nonsensical zone, scoring 23 of his 29 points in the final 3:24 and overtime. He was, as Quinnipiac coach Tom Moore put it, “brilliant…just brilliant.” He’s the reason UConn walks away 4-0. Flat out.
But here’s what you also must take away: This night was just as much about Quinnipiac as it was UConn. It was a showcase — albeit in a loss — for a Bobcats squad that will undoubtedly challenge for that elusive NCAA bid. It wasn’t a sign of how far UConn has dropped (the Huskies are ranked, after all), but rather how competitive the Bobcats have become.
Quinnipiac hounded Napier and Ryan Boatright for 37 minutes, holding the electric duo to 1-for-17 shooting in the first half. Junior forward Ike Azotam (he’s one of the good guys in Napier’s book) terrorized the Huskies inside. The only thing that could stop him — and it did, eventually — was foul trouble. His presence — he’s built like Jeff Adrien and wears the same number, too — makes you wonder, “How the heck did this guy end up at Quinnipiac?’
“Some schools might have thought he was a little short for his position,” Moore said Sunday morning before the game. “The same with our point guard, Dave Johnson. (High-majors) might have said ‘he can shoot it, he can handle, he’s quick — he’s just a little small for our league.”
Johnson, all 150 pounds of him, was big-time Sunday: He crossed over Boatright and drilled a 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds remaining to force the second overtime. As Moore — his voice raspy and his tone low — addressed the loss, Johnson limped out of the locker room with ice on his right leg. That’s the kind of night this was.
“I’m proud of you, Dave,” Moore said.
As he later divulged, he’s proud of his entire team. But there’s a difference between proud and happy.
“You don’t get extra points for playing really well against a good team that’s in the top 25,” Moore said.
In five years at Quinnipiac, Moore has played only two ranked teams: UConn in 2007 and UConn Sunday. That first experience, he said, was “awkward.” It was just his ninth game with the school, and he had to coach against Jim Calhoun, his mentor, and all the players he had recruited. After that, he and Calhoun determined it was best to end the series.
“Maybe some day in the future, it will continue,” Moore said after Quinnipiac’s opening round win over Iona. “I’m not sure.”
This much, though, you can be sure of: If Sunday is any indication, UConn and Quinnipiac have the ingredients for an interesting rivalry. There’s Moore and Ollie, two young coaches that aren’t close to hitting their respective ceilings (Quinnipiac has improved every year under Moore and UConn has received four “ten toes in” efforts under Ollie). There’s the underdog element, only now we know an upset isn’t impossible. There’s some attitude: “(A player not shaking hands) is O.K. with me,” Napier said. “We got the ‘W.'” And there’s one classic in the Paradise Jam to build on.
Sunday night’s hero (really, it seems like he’s been every night’s hero) headed out around 1:30 a.m. local time, finally able to catch his breath after another late-game masterpiece. Before Napier exited, he stopped to shake Moore’s hand.
“You know I love you, coach,” Napier said.
“Same here, man,” Moore replied. “Go get ’em.”