STORRS — She had done her best to remain composed during the pregame senior night ceremony. She had hugged Kevin Ollie tight and hugged Jim Calhoun just as tight. Afterward, after UConn had outlasted Rutgers, she stood there laughing as she posed with shirtless UConn students with her son's name spelled out on their chests.
And now Shabazz Napier's mom, wearing her No. 13 jersey, was considering this line of questioning: Why did Shabazz grab the torch when it looked as if the fire on the UConn basketball program was flickering? Why didn't he transfer like Roscoe Smith, Alex Oriakhi and Michael Bradley? Why didn't he try jumping to the NBA like Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb? Why didn't he bail?
"He had to stay, he had to," Carmen Velasquez said. "If you start something, you have to finish. You just don't up and leave because things aren't going right. You stay and you finish. I taught my kids never to bail out, never to give up on anything."
And so here was Napier, after he had hit a career-high seven three-pointers in a 69-63 victory over the Scarlet Knights, sitting inside the weight room at Gampel Pavilion. If he had hit his last three-point attempt with 4:47 remaining, he would have tied Kemba Walker for seventh on the all-time school scoring list at 1,783 points. And, man, wouldn't that have set us off on a long rift about matching Kemba's record and Kemba's legacy and all comparisons Kemba?
But all that would be for another day. This night was best served for reminding us how Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and, most especially, this fascinating guard from Roxbury stuck it out. Stuck it out when UConn was sandblasted out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament because of academic problems. Stuck it out as the Big East crumbled, after Calhoun retired on the eve of the 2012-13 season and after all those teammates left.
"I want to thank my seniors for providing me with loyalty and providing this program with faith," Ollie said. "They could have left. They could have transferred. They could have done a lot of things. But they said we're going to stay through the tough times and we're going to get back to where we belong."
"They kept this program alive. I owe them a lot. I can never repay them for what they gave me."
Try this. Try to rank Shabazz Napier among the greatest players in UConn history. It's not easy.
Best season? Open case. Kemba Walker, 2011. Close case.
But best career? Some say Donyell Marshall. Some say Ray Allen. Some say Rip Hamilton. Some say Kemba. I have argued for Emeka Okafor. Where does Napier, the only player to score at least 1,700 points and dish 600 assists, finish?
Arguments change with national championships. Same with the pros. Who's the best quarterback in NFL history? If you bring up Dan Marino, who might well be the best passer, you are immediately shouted down by the Super Bowl rings of Joe Montana, etc.
From his seat on press row, assistant director of athletic communications Phil Chardis, who covered the Huskies for more than three decades with the Manchester Journal Inquirer, is in as good a position as anyone to say the following 16 words: "In my opinion, no UConn player has meant any more to his particular team than Shabazz."
He leads the team in points (18.1). He leads the team in minutes (34.8). He leads the team in assists (5.3) and free throw percentage (88.4 percent). Good grief, at 6-1, 180, he leads the team in rebounds (5.9).
And if we had to quantify's Napier's UConn career in 10 words, it probably would be this way:
'Bazz stayed to the end.
'Bazz played to the end.
When was the last senior night that the Huskies honored a senior who clearly was the best player? Chris Smith in 1992? A.J. Price and Jeff Adrien were seniors in 2009, but you could argue that Hasheem Thabeet was the most dominating. So many great players left for the NBA before a fourth season.
"The guys were saying I was going to be the first to cry, but it wasn't like last year when I knew it was our last game," said Napier, whose game-high 26 points left him two shy of Kemba. "I was focused."
Napier, majoring in sociology, will become the first member of his family to graduate from college in May. Carmen raised three kids under difficult circumstance. Napier never shies away from saying his mom is his world, from saying his mom was both a mom and dad for him, from saying she was the one who had put the basketball in his hands when he was five and never stopped supporting him.
"I told her not to cry tonight," Napier said. "But to see her child grow up and see the fans cheering him on, of course, that's going to bring tears to your eyes. That's something big to her. To see her son doing something positive with his life, that's all she cares about."
Screaming at games? Edging in to meet one of her faves, Khalid El-Amin, a few weeks ago? Posing with the shirtless boys?
"That's her," Napier said, smiling. "She loves it."
Let's put it this way. Carmen is not quiet during games. Yet she's also fairly shy when the tape recorders come around.
"This was a special night, really touching, but I'm sad it's over with," she said. "It's only four years. It went by so quick. Unbelievable. I enjoyed every bit of it."
"But the most important thing for me is that degree. Basketball is his thing, but God forbid if you get hurt. He can definitely go somewhere with that degree."
'Bazz stayed to the end.
'Bazz played to the end.
"Nobody has had more clutch moments than Shabazz," said Joe D'Ambrosio, the radio voice of the Huskies, who argues that, despite all the state recognition, Napier has still been undervalued nationally.
Florida State, Quinnipiac, Indiana, Memphis … so many clutch endings the past few years. He has scored 61 points in 50 overtime minutes as UConn has won six of eight overtime games the past two seasons, too. He has gone 11-for-17 on threes in overtime and 24-for-28 from the free throw line.
There was that ridiculous 30-footer to beat Villanova with 0.6 seconds left when he was a sophomore. That one arrived after a 15-point loss to Marquette when he questioned some teammates' hearts, claiming that they had answered punches with pillows. There was that shot this December, too, at the buzzer to beat Florida, now the No. 1 team in the nation. As crazy as Ollie sounded when he told the senior night fans he planned to see them again in April when they raised a banner, you think about Florida, and it figures it'll take a big-time effort to KO KO's team with Napier in the NCAAs.
"You don't want to shy away from it," Napier said. "He says it and, of course, I'm going to back him up. He's my coach."
A coach who says he owes plenty to Napier and a player who says he owes everything to his mom.
"In the beginning, Shabazz learned from Kemba," Ollie said. "There was a lot of pressure on him his sophomore year. We won the national championship. Kemba [was gone]. We're supposed to have this talented team. I don't think he understood really what a leader was supposed to be. You learn from adversity. It builds character. He is willing to show his vulnerability now, 'I don't know it all. I need you guys to uphold me sometimes.' He learned that. He learned how to communicate with his players. Encourage them sometimes. Get on them sometimes. That's what you have to do as a point guard. He has done a masterful job."
"He's a kid that has been through a lot. There's a lot of pressure. School. NBA. People back home. For him to handle it like he has done has been remarkable."
As Carmen stood there, posing with the shirtless boys, smiling, she knew best how remarkable her son has been.