There are many well-worn paths that lead to the Final Four. Some teams enter the NCAA tournament as a top seed and proceed to trample everyone in their path as expected, crushing the spirits of all challengers (hello, Florida). Others hit the bracket jackpot, lucking into matchups against Cinderellas whose chariots driving them through the big dance have turned back into pumpkins. A more current approach involves gathering your annual band of supremely talented one-and-done teenagers, having them take their lumps early, and hoping that they figure out the merits of team basketball before the calendar turns to spring (see, the Kentucky squads of the eminently dislikable John Calipari).
Still, everyone’s favorite storyline is the team that arrives in the national semifinals by way of heroics, being singlehandedly lifted to greatness by one star player. America wants sexy. We want Duke’s villainous pretty boy Christian Laettner hitting miracle turnaround jumpers. We go crazy over Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony proving that age is just a number. We crave UConn’s unforgettable Kemba Walker completing a marathon run of a lifetime at a sprinter’s pace.
For anyone who may have predicted the current UConn team’s path to the Final Four, this was the only possible way – on a trail blazed by the star power of senior All-American Shabazz Napier, a Roxbury native. And in a way, those few bold prognosticators were correct. Napier has indeed led the Huskies to the promised land, where they’ll take on the top overall seed Florida Gators on Saturday night in Arlington, Texas. But he hasn’t gotten them there so much with the type of virtuoso performance on which he has built his reputation, as a last-minute assassin with the guts to take the big shots and the talent to make them.
Instead, Shabazz’s leadership has come in the form of an expert display of fundamentals, a consistent performance of basketball basics that has flowed like osmosis to each of his teammates. A less electrifying version of a hero, to be sure, but just as effective. It’s been about ball control and limiting turnovers. Finding open shooters. Grabbing loose balls. And draining free throws.
Forty-one-of-44. That was the team’s combined free throw shooting during its two dramatic wins last weekend over Iowa State and Michigan State (the Huskies are an impressive 81-of-92 overall in the tournament). It went 20-of-22 in the Sweet Sixteen game, including 11-of-12 in the final minute alone, when UConn withstood a furious Cyclones’ rally. And it shot a mind-boggling 21-of-22 in the Elite Eight, when Napier shot nine-of-nine, capped off by hitting all three foul shots in the closing seconds, turning a slim two-point margin into a five-point lead that sunk the Spartans.
Exemplary free throw shooting is not the hallmark of teams filled with lottery-bound athletic freaks. Rather, it is indicative of teams who put in the daily work to improve in one area that is only mastered through simple, grueling repetition. If this type of commitment starts with the coach and star player it can be infectious, and by and large we’ve seen the rest of the Huskies exhibit the same type of poise demonstrated by their leaders. What’s more is that knowing when and how to get to the line matters just as much as making the shots. Napier can sense a sputtering offense and a change in momentum, and time and again he seizes the moment to draw contact and earn some freebies.
It doesn’t hurt to play your regional semis and finals games at Madison Square Garden, the world’s greatest hoops venue (which was hosting tourney games for the first time in 53 years), and to be able to fill the place to the rafters with rabid Husky faithful. But even amid the frenzy of those glorified home games, a parade of free throws tends to take some of the air out of the crowd. To Tim Duncan’s everlasting chagrin, fundamentals are not sexy. Yet I’m sure he doesn’t lose much sleep over it when he’s got four rings under his pillow.
Sure, Connecticut’s exciting run to the Final Four was punctuated with trademarked Napier long-range bombs and contortionist drives to the rim. It’s had its share of Ryan Boatright’s quick hands leading to breakaway dunks. No one will forget DeAndre Daniels’ 27-point, 10-rebound reminder of who the alpha dog will be next season (if he stays, of course – one more year, DeAndre!). What I’ll remember, though, was smothering interior defense, composure in tight situations, and stellar foul shooting that enabled them to put games away. Without it, UConn would have bowed out against St. Joseph’s in the first round.
Now a daunting Florida team stands between UConn and a chance at their fourth national championship. The Gators have been on a roll, having won every game since a Dec. 2 matchup against these very Huskies. That game was won on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater, the kind of iconic play that incites pandemonium and has become his calling card. As Husky Nation is learning, however, hero ball in March doesn’t always need to come with flash and madness. Sometimes, it’s when your team steps to the line with everything at stake, and you already know it’s good.