For NCAA tourney's top player, it's all about perspective

broberts@herald-leader.comApril 8, 2014 

ARLINGTON, Texas — It was supposed to be a coronation.

The script that had been unfolding over 15 days just had to end with seven freshmen and one sophomore hitting the court in Kentucky blue and finishing out one more game.

These Wildcats had been through a lot this season.

Shabazz Napier has been grinding his whole life.

The UConn senior guard finished off his college career Monday night standing on a podium with the NCAA Tournament trophy in his hands. Napier was named the Final Four's most outstanding player after the Huskies' 60-54 victory over Kentucky.

He had 22 points, six rebounds and three assists. He made four three-pointers, the final one ending an 8-0 UK run that had the Cats looking as if they might finish their magical run with one last comeback.

It was Napier who had one magical moment left.

When he left that championship podium, the UConn star headed straight for his mother, Carmen Velasquez. The two shared a long embrace, tears flowing. Napier whispered that he loved her.

Velasquez raised Napier and his two siblings alone in Roxbury, Mass., a tough inner-city neighborhood in Boston.

Napier has often talked about how big a role Velasquez played in his life and how instrumental she was in keeping him out of trouble.

Velasquez didn't graduate from high school and just recently received her GED. Next month, her son will graduate from the University of Connecticut, his home for the past four years.

"It's a special feeling," he said through sobs after letting go of his mom. "I love my mom so much. She works so hard. Oh man, this is crazy."

Napier was here three years ago, but it didn't feel quite like this.

When the Huskies won the NCAA title in 2011, Napier was a freshman and Kemba Walker was the star.

Napier spoke Sunday of how much he learned from Walker, and he talked about how far he has come in the past three years. He said he was "a headache" in those days, someone who let his emotions take control.

Now, he's the team's leader, the guy who had to remind his teammates not to get too up or too down in a season that included a 33-point loss to Louisville and an improbable run to Monday's title game.

"When I was a freshman, I was always the guy that if we win, I go berserk. I had fun with it," he said. "I'm not that guy anymore. ... We can celebrate, but let's not forget what we came here for."

UK's freshmen (and sophomore) made their share of mistakes Monday night. They committed 13 turnovers and missed 11 free throws. They often reverted to past indiscretions, as freshmen do.

Napier made mistakes too, but he never really looked flustered. In fact, he was too relaxed when giving up a late steal to Andrew Harrison, letting the 19-year-old slip up behind him to take the ball.

But he and his veteran teammates endured everything UK's young players threw at them.

Some of these Wildcats will leave Lexington after just one season; some will return for at least one more.

Napier spoke Monday night about how happy he was for four years in Storrs.

Then he went to celebrate with his teammates. They surrounded him as the whole team watched "One Shining Moment" on the AT&T Stadium big screen.

The Huskies oohed and aahed at the highlights, but Napier looked on with little expression. His mother was standing in front of him, his arms around her. There were still tears in their eyes.

"There's obstacles around the world. You can't let it hold you down. You can't," he said. "You gotta find the positive people in your life to push you. Not a lot of kids see that."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: UKrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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