Thousands of basketball-obsessed kids, in schoolyards and backyards and barnyards around the country, may be trying a new kind of shot come Tuesday morning. It’s a deep one, and comes with a kick, literally: release, and kick your right foot out, like you’re also whacking an invisible soccer ball. Call it the Shabazz Shot. It just won UConn a national championship.
Shabazz Napier, the UConn senior shooting guard, scored 22 points, and hit four key three pointers — most with that signature kick — to lead the seventh-seeded Huskies to a 60-54 victory over eighth-seeded Kentucky in Monday night’s NCAA title game. His backcourt mate, junior Ryan Boatright, also had a fabulous game, shooting 5 for 6 from the field and finishing with 14 points. Napier and Boatright outscored Kentucky’s backcourt, twin freshman Aaron and Andrew Harrison, 36-15.
Just as important, Napier and Boatright used their size disadvantage to their advantage. The Harrison brothers are both 6-ft, 6-in. Napier is 6-ft, 1-in., and Boatright is listed at a generous 6-ft. Big guys don’t like being pestered by smaller, quicker players. UConn’s Kevin Ollie, a national champ in his first NCAA tournament as head coach, scripted a smart game plan: unleash the quickness of Napier and Boatright on Kentucky’s taller guards. The Harrisons turned the ball over 7 times. Both Napier and Boatright finished with three steals.
The game wasn’t a classic. But it was a chess match. In the first half, when Kentucky clearly couldn’t stop the quickness of UConn’s backcourt, Wildcats coach John Calipari switched to a zone. The move stalled UConn, which dominated Kentucky in the first half, but only had a 35-31 lead at halftime. Calipari admitted his team should have been down 20 points. The play got a bit sloppier in the second half: combined, both teams turned the ball over 23 times. Ollie made his moves in the second-half: almost all game, his team played man-to-man, but when he threw in the occasional zone, Kentucky got flustered. Kentucky’s James Young kept slithering into the lane, keeping the Wildcats in the game almost by himself. The freshman—all five of Kentucky’s starters are freshmen—finished with 20 points.
The game was also decided at the foul line: Connecticut, money from the line all tournament, shot a perfect 10-for-10. Kentucky missed nine shots, finishing 13-24. Calipari screwed up in the final minute, ordering a foul with 54 seconds left, with Kentucky down 58-54. All that did was give UConn a fresh 35-second shot clock, enabling the Huskies to run the time down the rest of the game.
No matter: the game was still the Shabazz show. Napier, who hails from Roxbury, Mass., returned to UConn this season instead of entering the NBA draft, and is on track to graduate with a sociology degree. He’s developed a social conscience: after telling reporters that he sometimes goes to bed hungry because his scholarship does not cover the full cost of attending college, Connecticut lawmakers started chirping about allowing UConn athletes to unionize. A bit of political pandering by the statehouse reps? Maybe. But at least he started a discussion. And after the game, Napier grabbed the CBS mike to deliver a message to the NCAA. “I want to get everybody’s attention right quick,” Napier told a national television audience. “Ladies and gentlemen, you’re looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us last year.” The NCAA kept UConn out of last year’s tournament because of poor academic performance by prior players. Napier used the national championship platform to publicly express his disgust with that policy.
You may not agree with Napier. But it’s still refreshing to see college athletes like him lifting their voices. And their feet. Start kicking, kids.