BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — In a span of three days, Shabazz Napier and Connecticut knocked out both Philadelphia schools in the NCAA tournament.
Now, the seventh-seeded Huskies are off to the East Regional semifinals in New York City to see how much more bracket busting they can do a year after being barred from the postseason because of academic sanctions.
Second-seeded Villanova became the highest seed to fall so far after Napier scored 25 points in leading UConn to a 77-65 victory Saturday night. The win came on the heels of another upset in Buffalo, where Dayton, the 11th seed in the South, beat third-seeded Syracuse 55-53.
“I guess it means something to you guys but at the end of the day, just because they’re No. 2 and we’re No. 7, they don’t get extra points to start the game off,” Napier said. “Everybody’s the same.”
UConn was better thanks to Napier, who scored 24 points two days earlier in an 89-81 overtime win against Philadelphia’s other tournament entry, Saint Joseph’s.
Napier had 21 points in the second half and helped put the game away by hitting three consecutive 3-pointers to give the Huskies a 54-45 lead with 6:08 remaining. The star guard was limited to 8 minutes in the first half by foul trouble, and he avoided a major scare when he briefly left the game after hurting his right shin with 4:01 left.
“The pain was excruciating. I couldn’t put any pressure on it,” Napier said. “Our trainer told me to mentally stay strong. … He put that Bio-freeze on it, and I was ready to go.”
The freeze didn’t cool him down once Napier returned after missing only about 40 seconds of action.
Holding the ball atop the 3-point arc, he blew past a defender while driving into the paint and flipped in an underhanded reverse high off the backboard to put UConn ahead 60-51 with 2:19 remaining.
Lasan Kromah scored 12 points for the Huskies, while DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright and Terrence Samuel each had 11.
Connecticut (28-8) advanced to face the winner of Sunday’s game between third-seeded Iowa State and No. 6 seed North Carolina.
“It’s unbelievable,” UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said. “It’s extra special, given what this team went through last year. Extra special.”
Manuel was referring to the academic sanctions that essentially rendered the Huskies’ 20-10 finish meaningless last year in Kevin Ollie’s first season as coach. Ollie has improved to 2-0 in his tournament debut, two years since taking over after Jim Calhoun stepped down because of health issues.
Ryan Arcidiacono scored 18 points for Villanova (29-5) in a matchup of former Big East rivals. James Bell had 14 and Darrun Hilliard added 13.
“Certainly a tough way to end the season,” Wildcats coach Jay Wright said. “I didn’t want to let this put a damper on what this group has done all year.”
Villanova fell one win short of matching the school record set in 2009, when the Wildcats lost to North Carolina in the national semifinals.
Napier’s performance played a significant role.
“He was just awesome,” Wright said. “There was a period where he hit three 3s, and it just created a separation.”
Wright was referring to a surge during which UConn took control in a span of 1:32 as Napier made three consecutive 3-pointers to build a 51-40 advantage. Kromah started it and Napier struck a pose for the cameras after hitting the second 3 with 8:59 left.
“He led us to victory,” Ollie said. “He was just unbelievable in that second half: 21 points, crucial 3s, dagger 3s. He was 30 feet out and he was making them.”
The Huskies are marching on to Madison Square Garden in their first season as members of the American Athletic Conference after the Big East was realigned following a series of defections.
Villanova remained a Big East holdover, but wound up being bounced by a familiar foe.
The teams traded leads four times in the opening 5:25 of the second half, with Daniels putting UConn ahead for good, 37-36, with a layup.
Poor shooting continued to haunt the Wildcats, who were coming off a 75-53 win over Milwaukee on Thursday.
After hitting five of their first eight attempts through the first 6:11, the Wildcats closed the half going 2 of 15. Their offense went stone cold after Hilliard hit a 3 to put them up 19-9 with 11:30 left.
Villanova went 11:24 without a field goal, missing 10 straight shots before Arcidiacono hit a 3-pointer with 5.9 seconds left in the first half that cut the Huskies’ lead to 25-24.
Villanova was down 42-36 with 11:48 left when Hilliard drove into an opening on the right wing and, as he went up to shoot, the ball slipped out of his hands and bounced out of bounds.
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