The common thread through Connecticut’s first three national championships was a strong lead guard.
Make it four for four, and add Shabazz Napier’s name to the list.
Napier controlled the Huskies’ 60-54 triumph over Kentucky in the NCAA Championship on Monday at AT&T Stadium.
He owned the game’s best stat line, with 22 points, six rebounds and three assists. But his impact went deeper.
Napier’s defense, along with backcourt mate Ryan Boatright’s, was critical in bottling up the Harrison twins, especially Aaron, who had been spectacular throughout the tournament.
The twins combined for 15 points and three of nine three-pointers.
“He impacted the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He impacts every game he plays. He has a swagger about him. It’s deserved.”
Napier was in command, much the way Khalid El-Amin was in 1999, Ben Gordon in 2004 and Kemba Walker in 2011. National champions all, and as Huskies fans reminded the team during the on-court celebration, three of the titles were captured in Texas. Connecticut cut nets in San Antonio in 2004 and Houston in 2011.
Napier was a freshman on the 2011 team, a regular off the bench, taking orders from Walker.
This year, Napier, the American Athletic Conference player of the year, was that captain.
One time up the floor, he took the ball from Boatright and nearly shoved him into position.
“Great player,” Boatright said of Napier. “Great teammate, great leader.”
Napier was at his best when Kentucky threatened to come back. The Wildcats started an 8-0 run with a James Young running slam and foul that completed three-point play.
The Connecticut lead had melted to 48-47, and the Huskies were in desperate need of a bucket.
Only one player would take the shot, and Napier drained a triple.
“One-point game, and he makes that three,” Calipari said. “He made a play.”
After a Kentucky free throw, Napier found Niels Giffey in the corner for another three.
In a game where every possession was vital, Napier made sure the Huskies made the most of theirs, because the ball was in good hands.