Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Shabazz Napier took a dribble or two from behind the 3-point arc and then lifted up for a 3-pointer many times on Monday night.
Every time he did the feeling seemed to be, from the players, the coaches, the thousands of fans in the crowd and even Napier himself, that the shot was going in. Of course, some did clang off the rim or rattle out, but for Connecticut, plenty went in.
There was the first 3 he hit at the top of the key to give UConn a 13-6 lead early in the first half. Then there was the one he hit with just over eight minutes left in the opening half, where he took a dribble, shook his shoulders and put down another triple. Less than four minutes later, he didn't even take a dribble before drilling a deep 3-pointer, lifting off nearly closer to half court than the 3-point line to give UConn a 33-20 edge.
Perhaps the most important shot he made in the game was with 6:51 to play in the second half. With Kentucky's Aaron Harrison guarding him, Napier rose up and drained a 3-pointer, giving Harrison, who made similar shots against Michigan, Louisville and Wichita State, a taste of his own medicine.
Harrison didn't just have trouble in trying to defend Napier. The hero of eighth-seeded Kentucky's improbable run to the national title game also was hounded by Napier on the other end, leading to a 3-of-7 shooting night from the floor and some costly turnovers.
When all was said and done, Napier had tallied 22 points on 8-of-16 shooting to go along with six rebounds, three assists, three steals and his second national title, as UConn defeated Kentucky, 60-54, in front of a championship game record crowd of 79,238.
Led by Napier's strong play over the past month, not to mention key contributions from Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, and the steady hand of head coach Kevin Ollie, UConn went from an overlooked seventh seed to national champions.
This was not the first time Napier has ended the season on top, as he got a taste of a national title in his freshman season when UConn, led by the heroics of Kemba Walker, topped Butler, 53-41, in the national championship game.
Things were much different then. UConn was still a member of the Big East, Jim Calhoun was patrolling the sidelines and Napier averaged just 7.8 points per game that season while netting a total of 30 points in six games in the NCAA Tournament.
The limelight was all Napier's this season. He was honored as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, adding to an already stellar collection, which includes American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and First-Team All-American honors.
Even with all the accolades, Napier has maintained a belief in the program and his team.
"We're the best team in the country. It's not the Shabazz show. No, I don't need to get recognized," Napier said. "(My teammates) understand that. It's the University of Connecticut Huskies. We went out there and proved it."
Despite his humility, it is tough not to be impressed by what Napier has done all season, especially come tournament time. He scored at least 20 points in four of the six games during the tourney, including 25-point efforts against No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 4 seed Michigan State. He went a stunning 31- of-33 at the free-throw line in those games, part of an overwhelming team effort at the charity stripe. In that same span, he averaged six rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.3 steals per game, effectively doing just about everything for UConn.
"As a leader, sacrifice, toughness, winner," Ollie said of how he would remember Napier. "If we needed him to lead us in rebounds, he did that. If we needed him to score, he did that. He's just a remarkable young man."
While the bookends of his career were clearly the high points, Napier's career at UConn wasn't always an easy one.
Last season, the Huskies played under a postseason ban due to recruiting violations. On top of that, the program also was going through a time of major upheaval, with the legendary Calhoun stepping aside for Ollie.
Although there was familiarity with Ollie, a former player at UConn and an assistant under Calhoun from 2010-12, Napier very well could have transferred. Fortunately for UConn he didn't, deciding, like teammates Boatright and Daniels, to tough out the one-year ban and, hopefully, make up for it in 2014.
They certainly accomplished that goal.
"We're hungry and when you prevent us (from) going to the postseason and it wasn't our fault, we worked from that day on," Napier said following Monday's win. "Coach Ollie told us it was a two-year plan and we believed."
Napier is the next in a long line of dominant players for equally dominant teams which have put on the UConn uniform over the last 16 years, a transformational time for the program.
Prior to the 1999 campaign, UConn had never made the Final Four and had only been past the first round 11 times. In the last 16 seasons, beginning with the 1999 national title, UConn has collected four national championship trophies, been to the Final Four five times and doubled the number of times it has advanced past the opening round.
There really can't be much arguing that UConn has been the most dominant college basketball program during these past 16 years. It's four national titles since 1999 are the most among Division I teams and other than stumbles in 2007 (17-14) and 2010 (18-16), it has had at least 20 wins every year.
Despite the long run of success in Storrs prior to this season, many thought that when Calhoun stepped away, the Huskies would be in for some major rebuilding. Monday night's win proved that simply isn't the case, especially if Ollie can find more players like Napier in the years to come.