5:54 PM EST, January 19, 2013
This was not the cheerleader Kevin Ollie of his first few months on the job. This was not the Ollie of Ollie-isms. There was no talk of stairs and escalators on this day. There was no talk about a time to seed and a time to harvest.
Ollie was terse. Ollie was curt. He addressed the 69-61 loss to Pittsburgh, said all he had to say, and did it in five minutes. Understandably, there's a time to be cranky, too. Given Ollie's no-nonsense, no-excuses mood, it was scarce surprise that he deflected a question about how limited Shabazz Napier was because of a bruised left shoulder.
"He was out on the court," Ollie said. "He was 100 percent."
He was out on the court. He wasn't 100 percent.
Ryan Boatright, who led a second-half comeback with a slice-and-dice array of penetrating moves — a comeback that ultimately fell short — was more forthcoming about his backcourt partner.
"Shabazz, man, his shoulder is messed up," said Boatright, who finished with 20 points. "Anybody could tell he wasn't himself."
Without a Big East tournament, without an NCAA tournament, without any postseason tournament to look forward to, Big East games such as these mean everything to the 2012-13 Huskies. So when your best player is essentially reduced to a perimeter passer and three-point Johnny, the impact on the game and the season is no small matter.
"It got kind of discomforting after a while," said Napier, who finished with only eight points and two assists in 34 minutes. "I was getting banged on my shoulder. I was trying to do my best to stay away from a lot of picks on the left side. I boxed out, went back and that's when I felt it. I thought my adrenaline would take all my pain away, but it didn't."
"I couldn't dribble with my left hand. I had a turnover at the end near halftime where I tried to get to the middle and dribble. [A Pitt player] kind of hit my arm. I'm usually able to fix that contact and get a shot up or something. But I wasn't able to dribble with my left hand."
Lamar Patterson stole the ball off that Napier turnover with 11 seconds left in the first half, and Pitt scored to take a 13-point lead at halftime. The Huskies obviously got an earful at intermission, only Napier couldn't shoulder the load this time.
Ollie called the first half an embarrassment. The Panthers, at times, employed a 2-3 zone, coming out to challenge the Huskies' premier guards, making life tough for the little guys. Guard Trey Zeigler, at 6-5, was a problem for Napier. And with 6-9 forward Talib Zanna jumping out on the wing, open shots from the arc were at a premium in a first half in which the Huskies shot 29 percent.
After the UConn coaches challenged the team at halftime, the Huskies did play much tougher. Ollie said there weren't X's and O's adjustments. There were attitude adjustments. It wasn't enough. Pitt got baskets when it needed at the end, the Huskies' defense coming off the pick-and-roll coming up short. Still, it was the start that was the real problem.
"It was a 12 o'clock game," said Napier, who dismissed any notion of a lingering hangover from the Louisville loss on Monday. "A lot of guys were still sleepwalking."
"We came out with a better effort in the second half. But a lot of times when you're down, you use all your energy to come back. Once you are even, you don't sustain that energy. And that's exactly what happened."
Boatright put it more colorfully.
"We dug ourselves too deep a grave to climb," he said. "We did a good job climbing out, but we died trying to get out of it."
RIP, Petersen Events Center, as far as a strong Big East basketball rivalry goes. UConn finished 1-6 at the new place and 11-13 overall at Pittsburgh.
Napier has never missed a game for UConn, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been plagued by injuries and given us his share of drama. After months of pain, Napier underwent surgery in September to repair a stress fracture in his right foot. He had a screw inserted into his fifth metatarsal bone. That lingering foot problem, of course, had led to great theater against Villanova last season. After questioning the heart of his team following the Marquette loss, Napier did not play the first four minutes in Philly. He dramatically came off the bench that night and ended up hitting a 29-foot three-pointer with 0.6 seconds left to give UConn a giddy 73-70 victory.
There would be no such giddiness Saturday. Napier had gone down hard less than four minutes into the loss against Louisville. Peyton Siva fouled him. Napier hit the XL Center floor. Big Wayne Blackshear fell on him. Napier thought his shoulder might have been dislocated. And as the game wore on and Louisville's defense applied its vise-lock grip, Napier, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the first seven minutes, faded. He missed all six shots in the second half.
"When I woke up [Tuesday], I was in a lot of pain," Napier told reporters Thursday at Gampel Pavilion. "I'm having trouble sleeping some nights."
Napier said that he practiced some Friday in Pittsburgh.
"It wasn't much of a problem," Napier said. "We went 5-on-5, I was limited a little bit. Shooting-wise, the only thing that was wrong was I felt a little hitch in my shoulder. James [trainer Doran] said I was good to go, so I was going to go out there and try my best."
Entering Saturday, Napier, averaging 17.1 points, had taken 194 shots, including 84 three-point attempts through 16 games. That's an average of 12.1 shots, including 5.25 three-pointers. On Saturday, six of his seven shots were threes. He missed a layup with four minutes to go in the first half and that was about the limit of his penetration. He hit a three in the first half. He hit a couple of free throws. He hit a three to cut Pitt's lead to 55-53 with 5:13 left in the game. With UConn down by four with 1:30 left, Napier eschewed a drive and its options, and missed a vital three from the left wing.
"I felt like I couldn't penetrate as much," Napier said. "I felt like I'd turn the ball over if I tried. I resorted to trying to make threes."
"Pitt did a good job defending, but Boatright was able to penetrate. R.J. Evans, too. I was the only guy who didn't. I didn't have the confidence dribbling-wise."
Napier has eight days to recover now before UConn faces Rutgers next Sunday at the XL Center.
"We need Shabazz to get healthy as fast as possible," Boatright said.
And it is possible. The good news? No Huskies really died digging themselves out of that first-half grave.
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