Very little escapes the eyes of Shabazz Napier. He saw within a few minutes the way this game was going, saw that Harvard was not going to give him opportunities to score, and more important, he noticed "the look" in DeAndre Daniels.
"Once he started scoring, I could see the look in his eyes," Napier said, "and I didn't want to take it away from him. I wouldn't want someone to take it away from me, I would think that was selfish. So I knew I had to keep getting him the ball."
The DeAndre Daniels for whom the Huskies have been waiting had somehow arrived, on this of all nights, and he carried his teammates on his back — ailing back and all. Daniels scored a career-high 23 points as UConn again had to stick with it and grind out a 57-49 win over Harvard in front of 9,113 Friday night at Gampel Pavilion.
"Imagine if he didn't have a bad back," Napier said.
Daniels has been hampered by back spasms for most of the week, affecting his play against North Carolina State on Tuesday night. In this game, Harvard had a plan to try to contain Napier, who did not score until midway through the second half, and Ryan Boatright, who scored 16 points.
"We didn't think we could stop [UConn's guards]," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said, "we thought we could contain them, and then my concern was one of their other players taking advantage of all our attention on the guards. And that's what happened. … Daniels had an outstanding game. We were searching for answers to cover him."
Despite Daniels' career-best game, the Huskies were sluggish on offense, and despite coach Kevin Ollie's decision to start 7-foot-1 Enosch Wolf over Tyler Olander, the rebounding did not improve. Wolf, who had nine rebounds in 21 minutes against N.C. State, had zero rebounds in 20 minutes Friday night.
UConn's guards found Wolf a couple of times early, and Daniels, penetrating and scoring, or drawing fouls, helped the Huskies build a 15-2 lead over the first 6:44 of the game. Harvard missed its first six shots, and had five turnovers during this stretch.
Then Amaker went to a zone defense, and the Huskies stagnated on offense. Harvard had an 8-0 run, and outscored UConn 22-10 over the next 12 minutes. Steve Moundou-Missi's layup pulled Harvard within a point, 25-24, with 2:08 left in the half. Daniels' layup, his 14th and 15th points, made it 27-24 going into the half, and Ollie was upset, as he has been at the breaks of other games. Only three players — Wolf, Napier and Daniels — had scored for UConn.
"If we don't stop playing like that, coach is going to get gray hair and he's only 30-something," Napier said. "He's going to look like [Jim] Calhoun in two months, and we don't want that."
The crowd was late arriving, perhaps because of traffic problems on I-84, but the building was full by halftime, and getting loud. At one point, the fans appeared to trick Harvard into a shot-clock violation by counting down the seconds inaccurately.
"Our sixth man, our fans, were un-be-lievable," Ollie said. "I wanted to go and play."
The Huskies responded to Ollie's halftime message — "I may blow a gasket sometimes, you all don't see that, but at the end of the day they know I love them," he said.
Napier began to impact the game in other ways. Battling for rebounds, he led UConn with seven. And he put on a passing clinic, getting nine assists with only one turnover. "That's better than ME," said Ollie, a former point guard.
UConn, which never did give up the lead, led 33-32 with 14:33 left when it began the decisive run. Daniels hit a jumper, and penetrated for a layup. Napier made a steal, and threw ahead to Niels Giffey for a dunk. Napier, the Huskies' leading scorer, finally got his first points on a three-point shot with 7:39 to go, and he made another pass to Giffey for a score that finished a 12-1 run, making it 46-34 with 6:42 left in the game.
"I want Shabazz to score 18 points a game," Ollie said, "because I think he is capable of it. But the game dictated that he had to pass it, and he made some wonderful passes. DeAndre played an outstanding game, he just controlled the game, and he showed the toughness we want."
Wesley Saunders scored 14 to lead Harvard, which had a 27-20 edge in rebounds.
Daniels, meanwhile, who made 9 of 12 from the floor, 4 of 4 from the line, was getting treatment here and there, trying to stretch out his back, which he said bothered him the entire game. "But once you start scoring," Napier said, "and that adrenaline gets in you, that goes out the window."
An elite recruit who had little impact as a freshman, Daniels, 6-feet-8, but wiry, is playing at power forward and figures to be out-muscled by some opponents. But Ollie has continued to try to build him up, and they have frequent talks in the coach's office.
"He tells me I just need to have confidence," Daniels said. "If I can have a game where I perform like this, I think I will have more confidence."