STORRS, Conn. – Kevin Ollie's toughness has been well chronicled. From his days in a Connecticut basketball uniform, down the path that leads through the minor leagues, through his journeys from one NBA franchise to another, Ollie's self confidence has defined his actions.
Now, as coach of the UConn Huskies, Ollie does not hand out false praise. He simply tells it like it is. So, Sunday afternoon at Gampel Pavilion, when Ollie said Shabazz Napier isn't "scared to fail," the words must be taken as a compliment of the highest order.
Napier, the junior guard from Roxbury, Mass., scored 11 of his game-high 24 points in overtime Sunday as UConn (15-5, 5-3 Big East) extended its winning streak to three games with a 69-64 Big East victory over South Florida (10-11, 1-8). It was the second OT victory of the week for the Huskies, and for a second straight game they had to mask some horrendous statistics just to find the winner's circle.
Told of his coach's kind words, Napier seemed a bit embarrassed, but recovered quickly to say he has experienced a lot of failure in his life – and that's why he is better equipped to handle certain challenges.
"Growing up, I've always been in tough situations, whether it be on the court or off the court," Napier said Sunday. "Once you get [familiar] with tough situations throughout your whole life, it comes easy to you in a way.
"In high school, I always demanded the ball at the end. I'm aggressive every single time I could get the ball. I love those moments. I always tell myself I couldn't live with myself if I wasn't the guy taking the last shot."
After playing on a national championship team as a freshman, Napier had some serious growing pains as a sophomore. But this season, as he leads the Huskies in scoring (16.8 ppg), he has also matured into a leader – and the guy UConn turns to with the game on the line.
Napier missed a deep three-pointer that would have won the game in regulation, but his three consecutive 3-pointers at the start of overtime opened up a 61-54 lead to ice the game.
"He just made remarkable shots," Ollie said. "He's just got that belief in himself, that it's a certainty, he's going to have confidence when it goes in. He's committed to that shot and he's going to knock it down.
"If he misses, he shakes it off. It's a wonderful thing if you have that confidence as a basketball player. He's not scared to fail. That's a great attribute. From failure comes success and he's not scared to take that big shot in a big moment. Actually, I think he embraces it, which is crazy. But that's what great players do. They embrace those situations. They live for those situations."
The Huskies found themselves in some strange situations Sunday. They won the game despite shooting 29.8 percent from the floor, perhaps an even bigger disadvantage than the minus-31 rebounding margin at Providence Thursday night.
UConn scored just 15 points in the first half, the worst half for the Huskies ever in Gampel, which opened in 1990. It was the lowest point total in a first half by the Huskies since the scored nine against UMass on Dec. 10, 2002. UConn rallied to win that game too.
This time, Napier scored four points and Ryan Boatright (17 points) had seven as the Huskies opened the second half with a 15-2 run to take a 30-29 lead. The lead went back and forth after that, with Toarlyn Fitzpatrick (22 points, 10 rebounds), Victor Rudd (12 points) and Anthony Collins (10 points) keeping the Bulls close.
Collins got past Boatright and hit a floater over DeAndre Daniels to tie the game at 52 with 11.7 seconds left in regulation. UConn had plenty of time to win it but Boatright was late getting the ball into the hands of Napier, who rushed a deep three-point attempt and missed.
"I drew up a shot," Ollie said. "I thought they were going to go man-to-man. They went zone. We thought Ryan would just take them. But we still ran the play. It was for an isolation for Shabazz at the top."
It may not have been as deep as the shot Napier hit to beat Villanova last season, but it was close.
"It was kind of a hurry up shot," Napier said. "I didn't get my feet under me. It looked like it had a chance to go in, but luckily I made them in overtime.
"I always tell myself, ‘Keep your composure.' I try to do my best every single day. I go out there and give 110 percent, whether I'm sick or whether I'm hurt. I just go out there and try my best."
Napier's heroics came on a day when his mother was in the crowd. And he was honored before the game, along with teammates R.J. Evans, Niels Giffey and Leon Tolksdorf, for making the academic honor roll for the fall semester. That attracted a standing ovation from the crowd, a sign of appreciation equal to or great than any of those reserved for the three-pointers in overtime.
The Bulls beat UConn in virtually every category on the way to a 27-15 halftime lead and Fitzpatrick (11 points) almost outscored the Huskies by himself in the first half.
The official statistics credited UConn with six turnovers in the first half but it seemed more like 60. The Bulls outscored UConn 7-4 on points off turnovers, 5-1 on second chance points, 8-3 on fast break points and 14-2 in the paint. Rebounding remained a huge problem for the Huskies as USF held a 22-19 advantage but UConn could have overcome that with better defense and better shooting.
"We just really didn't have any energy, any passion," Tyler Olander said. "We were kind of just going through the motions. Pretty much a lack of effort."
Boatright banked in a shot from halfcourt as the half end but he released the ball after the buzzer and that seemed appropriate with the Huskies shooting 18.5 percent in the first 20 minutes. The shot was clearly late and the officials waved it off. They did review the play but there was no doubt about the decision.
All the Huskies could was shake their heads on the way into their locker room. UConn was 5-for-27 in the half and three of those were three-pointers – including one by Leon Tolksdorf, who played eight minutes off the bench. It was the second 3 of the season for Tolksdorf.
"The crowd stuck with us," Ollie said. "I thought they were probably going to walk out."
If they had bolted, they would have missed Napier playing the role of Mr. Clutch again. He has done it before and it appears he has no intention of letting up.
"I expect him to be this way," Ollie said. "The best thing about Shabazz is he expected more than I expected. That's what great players do. His expectation of himself is greater than mine. And when you become a great player, that's what you do. . . . He thinks he can make every shot. Sometimes I get mad at him in practice because he doesn't take a lot of shots.
"He's a great basketball player but he's also growing up as a man. That's the thing I try to focus on, is his leadership. His leadership has been outstanding."