Napier, Huskies always kept believing

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_Value

NEW YORK -- She used to sneak out of work at lunchtime and drive wherever the game was being played.

Sometimes when she went back to work the next day, she didn't have a job, her boss fed up with an absentee employee.

And then there would be another game, another job and she would do it all over again. The bills would come in and Carmen Velasquez would hole up in her bedroom while she tried to figure out a solution to an unsolvable problem.

"I didn't care,'' Velasquez said. "My kids came first. My kids always came first. I'd do it all over again if I had to because they knew. They knew it wasn't easy, but they knew I was there for them. It was worth it.''

Her voice so hoarse even a whisper was almost too much, Velasquez then started to cry. Because believing something is worth sacrificing and realizing the reward isn't always immediate.

But the believers never stop clinging to the hope. It's why they call it blind faith. That's what Velasquez did.

And that's what she taught her son to do.

Shabazz Napier led Connecticut to a fairy tale Final Four courtesy of a  60-54 win over Michigan State because he scored 25 points and had four assists; because he, like Kemba Walker, the man whose bar he tried to reach for four years, scored or assisted on 45 percent of his team's points en route to the Final Four.

But mostly because Napier, who lost his coach, his conference and a postseason in one year, had faith it could happen even when no one else did.

"I've been through a lot and I've succeeded in some of them and failed in some of them, many, many times,'' Napier said. "But it doesn't hurt to try. You never know how successful you can be until you try.''

The lead-up to this game was about Napier and the improbable Huskies trying to stop Michigan State from achieving what has become a birthright under Tom Izzo. In 19 years as a head coach, Izzo had never failed to lead a senior class to the Final Four.

Turns out, though, coaches can only do so much.

The ones who get you to the Final Four are the players, the ones who embrace the moment with arms wide-open, who hit pull-up jumpers with the clock winding down, the lead dwindling and the Final Four waiting, who calmly sink free throws when an entire state is watching, afraid to exhale.

Which is exactly what Napier did, scoring the jumper with 1:45 left and the three dagger free throws at the :30 mark to push the Huskies' lead to five.

The UConn win ends what has been a brutally tough year for Michigan State. Besieged by injuries, the Spartans really only came into their own this month.

"We did not bring our A-game today and we got what we deserved today,'' Izzo said. "I tried to tell these guys that when you get into the tournament, you got to bring it every second. And today Connecticut did and we just weren't as good as we have been.''

Ryan Boatright's on-ball defense all but gave the Spartan guards a case of the yips. DeAndre Daniels, Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah chased Michigan State out of their bread and butter spot so well that the Spartans not only finished with a measly six points in the paint, they ended up putting  Branden Dawson on a milk carton (he finished with five points).

All of that mattered and contributed largely to the Huskies' win but nothing mattered more than Napier, not in this game, not in this entire season.

The senior has spent his entire UConn career chasing a phantom, trying to live up to Walker's magical 2011 run. It was never fair to him, an impossible order to fill for anyone, even someone as talented as Napier.

Of course Napier has done the impossible. It's what he does. He makes shots that aren't supposed to go in; he slices passes that don't have a sliver of an opening. He takes a team that no one thought much about all season and turns it into a national semifinalist because he believes in himself, but more, because he believes in his teammates.

"I remember one time he just pulled up with like four minutes to go, and I'm running back on defense and I'm like, 'Oh my God, oh my God, how did he make that?''' Niels Giffey said. "He has that confidence but it's not just in himself. I'm missing shot after shot after shot but he keeps going to me. He believes in me even more than myself sometimes.''

The Huskies were maybe the only people in the country who believed in themselves this year. They spent last year banned from the postseason due to bad APR scores, a sting so painful that Giffey said he didn't even watch the tournament.

"Why would I do that to myself?'' he said.

Its league's strength uncertain, its head coach unproven, UConn wasn't overlooked at the start of the season. Overlooked would require that the Huskies were even thought of. They weren't.

But Ollie, who strings together motivational clichés like some sort of preaching Yogi Berra, told his team to love one another, trust one another and most of all, believe in one another.

And so, with nothing to prove and even less expected of them, they plodded along through the season. The Huskies won seven of their final nine regular-season games but the ninth -- a 33-point loss to Louisville -- did not exactly portend a Final Four berth.

Except here we are.

"We believed in each other,'' Napier said. "Life gives you opportunities sometimes and sometimes you don't take them by the horns. We understood we had to take them by the horns.''

That's exactly what Velasquez wanted, kids who would live not so much on false hope but create their own hope.

Her life was never easy. For a single mother with three kids, it was never going to be easy. But she preached one thing to her kids -- to be better than her, to succeed more.

All three of them will graduate from college.

Napier, the youngest, is set to graduate this year.

But the baby of the family refused to just be satisfied with his own successes. He wanted more for his mother and so a year ago, he insisted she go back to school. Kids and life conspired to rob Velasquez of a chance to finish her high school diploma. Napier insisted she get her GED.

This year, she will get her diploma.

"He pushed me like I pushed him,'' Velasquez said. "I know he'll say that will be his proudest moment but no, no, this is bigger."

While Velasquez spoke, a woman came over with the game ball in her hand.

"Don't lose that,'' Velasquez said.

Napier had given the ball up grudgingly. After Dan Chapman made a meaningless 3 for Michigan State, Connecticut went through the motions of inbounding the ball. Napier took the pass and took the ball, dribbling it down the court and tucking it under his elbow through his CBS interview and through the initial team photo crush.

"I'm not giving it up, no way,'' he said.

Eventually he surrendered it to a staffer, who then promised Velasquez it would have a safe home.

"The Final Four,'' Velasquez said. "It's magic. Magic.''

And sometimes you have to believe in magic.

-- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23121857. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23121857. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23121857. -- This embed didnt make it to copy for story id = 23121857.
null
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...