12:18 AM EDT, March 29, 2014
NEW YORK — He missed his first shot. That is being too kind. DeAndre Daniels bricked his first shot, a three-point attempt that would have caved in the south side of Madison Square Garden if it hadn't bashed into the backboard.
Daniels missed his second shot, too, a jumper with 7:11 left in the first half of a giddy Friday night that would see UConn use an 81-76 victory over Iowa State to advance to the Elite Eight of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Almost 15 minutes into this game, Daniels had one point.
UConn fans know what that means. Anyone who has watched his peaks and valleys, his game-to-game tidal changes of the past three winters, knows what that means.
The junior from Los Angeles was going to lose his swag. Daniels was mentally going to waver. He might lose his way, might go south.
But with the entire season on the line, with thousands of Huskies fans taking the train from Connecticut, with many of the great names in Connecticut basketball history pushing into the world's most famous arena, Daniels didn't go anywhere. With Jim Calhoun here, with the entire starting five from the first national championship team of 1999 here, Daniels didn't go anywhere.
Except to the rim.
Except over an outstretched hand of a perimeter Iowa State defender.
Except to a tremendous stretch of 12 minutes, 38 seconds that will placed on the mantel with all the other great and important nights in the history of UConn tournament basketball. Daniels scored 20 of his 27 points in that span, eventually hitting 10 of his last 13 field-goal attempts.
"Once he hit the first jump shot," Ryan Boatright said, "we knew that we were going to try to get him another easy basket. And once he got that easy basket, we were going to keep going to him until he missed."
This is Shabazz Napier's team, and the four threes he hit in the first half went a long way to relax his team. Iowa State had the yips at the start. Bazz did not. Napier has talked long and often about Daniels. So has Boatright. They urge him to keep his chin up if matters start out raw. They urge him to stay involved in every way even if his shot doesn't drop right away. Sometimes Napier sounds like a protective dad. Sometimes he sounds like a frustrated leader.
"In the beginning tonight, DeAndre was kind of pressing," Napier said. "He wanted to make a big impact and I told him, 'Just calm down. The game's going to come to you.' DeAndre's a scorer, and once you feel that you have that confidence, the next shot's going to go in and we kept feeding him and he got super-hot. We had to cool his hand down."
The shot clock is meaningless to the Cyclones. They hoist it fast. They hoist it from afar. They dive-bomb the lane. They didn't play much defense early on and didn't get the requisite stops they so needed in slicing the lead from 17 points in a late desperate attempt to pull out the game.
Napier came out afire. At halftime, the Huskies were 7 of 12 on threes for a 10-point lead. Napier and Boatright combined for 22 of the 36 points. Daniels? He didn't hit his first basket, a three, until 5:12 remained in the first half. He had eight by halftime and reeled off 13 more points in the opening 7:28 of the second.
"I just wanted to start off the second half staying aggressive," Daniels said. "My teammates were talking to me."
He hit a three-pointer from the top of the key to give UConn its biggest lead of the night, 49-32, with 14:19 left. And there was one in-your-face jumper where I swear he gave the Michael Jordan tongue. By that time, he was downright scary. Napier went over and starting yelling at him in elation.
"I called him an animal, I think," Napier said. "When he gets in that mode, that's what he is. He's an animal. And you've got to keep feeding him."
Maybe in the Bronx Zoo there are signs not to feed the animals. But at MSG, clearly different rules apply. If the animal's hands are hot, you keep feeding him. A terrific pass from Napier to Daniels gave UConn a 16-point lead with 7:38 left. The rout didn't stand up, it got kind of hairy, but Daniels' immense contributions certainly did. He had 10 rebounds and a couple of blocks. One massive block on Monte Morris seven minutes in helped fuel him.
"It's much easier for a guy to get going when he is giving so much effort," Napier said. "At the end of the day, when you push yourself to give 110 percent effort, it's going to show up on the stat sheet in different ways no matter what. I was coming off pick-and-rolls, guys were doubling me and he was open. We want him to understand, 'DeAndre, stay confident.' Once he gets going, he is a great shooter. He is a great scorer."
"He's an inside-outside threat, and we try to do a nice job manipulating the defense, getting him in the sweet spots," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I got great two point guards that find him in the sweet spot. DeAndre did a great job tonight staying with it. He could have easily hung his head, and he stayed with it and he pushed us over the top in the second half. That's mental toughness."
There was debate last spring whether Daniels might leave for the NBA draft. He had a four-game span last year when he averaged 21.3 points and nine rebounds. He played so well against Otto Porter of Georgetown. Yet for much of the past winter, it sounded absurd for Daniels to even consider leaving for the pros. He didn't look nearly strong enough. He didn't look nearly assertive enough. Daniels is the X factor, to be sure, for UConn. As they stand 40 minutes from the Final Four, he was the Y-Not-Us? factor.
"He was unbelievable tonight," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "He was hitting midrange shots over extended hands and got free for a couple threes where I didn't think we got a hand up, even when we were in the area. They did a good job feeding the hot hand."
A young man of relatively few words, Daniels said he just wanted to send the seniors out with "a good bang." On a Friday night in the big city, yes, that was a pretty good bang.
"It's just not basketball," Ollie said. "He has life issues and he's always worked through them. I can tell DeAndre, he's been hurting sometimes, but he still is here. He's still fighting for our team. There's been some ups and downs where he didn't play to his abilities. At the end of the day, you don't have to be a great, all-time basketball player, but you can always be a great teammate. And that's what he's doing."
"We really concentrate on DeAndre. It's not about points for him, it's about getting touches. It's about him bringing energy. That's what you're seeing tonight with the 10 rebounds. Deflections are touches. He's got two blocks. Those are touches. Once that takes over, his talent is very supreme."
Yes, it is. And that's why the Huskies fed the animal.
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