Yes, Olander For Three! Yes, Napier Still The Man

NEW YORK — With just under 12 minutes remaining in a delicious, crazy opener that made the long offseason wait all worth it, Shabazz Napier stole the ball and set up Ryan Boatright for one of those nasty dunks that trumpet the little man's big Boat Show.

Napier proceeded to punch a hole in UConn's boat with five little words.

"All I said was, 'That's what I do best!'" Napier said after No. 18 UConn escaped with a hairy 78-77 victory over Maryland Friday night at Barclays Center.

Boom. Technical foul. Personal foul. A personal foul, in fact, that would come back to haunt Napier.

"It's not like I swore or anything," Napier said.

UConn was up 17 points at the time and doing some of what it has done best through the years and some of what the Huskies didn't do last season. Except for some spotty three-point defense, they did mostly everything right in a 48-point first half. And they did it with a versatility and depth that we didn't see in last year's surprising 20-10 season. In his first college game, Amida Brimah blocked three shots in one inspired sequence. Brimah will alter shots. By the time he is finished at Storrs, he will alter games. Niels Giffey, after a summer playing with the German pros, demonstrated a confidence that we hadn't seen in scoring 13 points and pulling down four rebounds in the first half. And on and on.

UConn, which struggled so mightily on the boards last season, outrebounded a bigger, wider Maryland team, 36-33, on this opening night.

So if we told you at halftime when the Huskies were up 12 or with 11:52 left when they had that 17-point lead that they would need a Tyler Olander three with 1:59 left in the game to pull this one out, you'd probably say we were nuts.

Absolutely nuts.

After all, Olander, twice suspended in the last year for some ill-advised offseason stuff, didn't play in the first half and didn't even step on the court until 5:46 had elapsed in the second.

Yet there was the big guy from E.O. Smith stroking his only shot of the game to give UConn a 78-73 lead and, from there, without Napier, the Huskies held on. Barely.

"I've been working on that shot," Olander said. "Me and Coach Miller work on it after practice. When I get in the game it is something that will help us, spread the floor. Shabazz and Boat can get in the lane and create. If I am able to knock that down, it makes us that much better."

Olander has always had a decent outside shot, but he started 26 games last season as a junior, averaged 21.6 minutes playing time and didn't hit a three. He had been 1-for-10 in his career. In fact, you have to go all the way back to December 2011 against Harvard for his only previous three.

"Yeah, I remember," Olander said. "It was a while back."

Yes, it was.

"That shot right there, excuse my French, you've got to have balls to make that shot," Napier said.

It's going to take some time for coach Kevin Ollie to figure out exactly how all the minutes will fall. He said it will go game to game. Last season, as Boatright pointed out, there were nights when the undermanned Huskies were "gassed." This November, as Ollie pointed out without much exaggeration, he has 10 guys who could start. He certainly has 10 guys who can play considerable minutes.

Yet here's the thing. When Napier fouled out with 1:30 left and the Huskies were up five, man, it was a roller coaster ride from there. All the depth, all that versatility, and let's be honest: It gets crazy out there without Napier. And it did. He holds it all together. The Huskies never scored again without him. Yes, they got some big, big stops with Brimah, Terrence Samuel, Boatright, Giffey and Olander on the floor at the end — didn't see that coming — but Shabazz is the guy who allows UConn fans to remember to keep breathing and not turn national-flag blue.

"It was tough, tough," said Napier, who missed three-four more minutes because of foul trouble. "In my head I was saying, why did I foul out? But I felt a lot of confidence in my team. I told Terrence [Samuel] you should love to be in this position. He embraced it."

Yes, the Huskies rebounded with inspiration and perspiration. And you know who led them with seven? Napier. He led them with 18 points and seven assists, too. Yet in the end, it did take a guy who hadn't played in the first half, looked like he was nailed to the bench, to emerge from Chateau Bowwow and make the game-winning shot. Go figure.

"Coach Ollie always said you never know when your number is going to be called," Napier said. "He knocks down that shot in practice. We needed that shot and he knocked that boy down. I played Tyler in high school. He used to shoot threes. He looked like a big guy who could move on his feet. He came here and lost his confidence. Slowly, it's being brought back up."

This season is going be a thrill, UConn fans, a hoot. Phillip Nolan, DeAndre Daniels, Boatright, Omar Calhoun, Samuel, Lasan Kromah, Brimah, from night to night we're not sure what we're going to see. But so deep, so ferocious, with all that depth, it should be really good.

"What we showed tonight was we could dig down and pull it out no matter what," Napier said.

That they did.

And Olander hit a three.

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