NEW YORK — Eventually, every superhero needs his sidekicks.
Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier continued to play in superheroic fashion Friday in the NCAA tournament’s East Regional semifinal at Madison Square Garden — and understudies DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright cued up the highlight reel in the seventh-seeded Huskies’ 81-76 victory against third-seeded Iowa State.
Boatright, an East Aurora product, served as the team’s primary ballhandler, and Daniels was dominant in the paint — affording Napier the luxury of playing effortlessly. The Huskies showed they are much more than just Napier.
Daniels finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds, Boatright scored 16 and Napier had 19. Solid early play by Daniels and Boatright ultimately helped UConn weather a late Iowa State surge.
“When he made that first one, and then we got him an easy one [he started rolling],” Napier said of Daniels. “DeAndre’s a scorer, and once you feel that, you have that confidence the next shot is going to go in. We kept feeding him, and he got super hot.”
Napier has been the story of the tournament.
The do-it-all senior, listed at 6-1, led the Huskies in scoring, assists and rebounding. Likely no other combo guard in the country has needed to shoulder as much responsibility as Napier. He had 49 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists in his two tournament games heading into Friday.
Napier likely could have given the kind of All-American effort he has displayed through UConn’s first two games of the tournament. But he didn’t need to. And it was important as the Huskies watched two great defensive teams — Michigan State and Virginia — go at it later Friday night at the Garden for the right to face them in the East Regional final.
The multiple point-guard look of Boatright and Napier is UConn’s greatest asset. Napier playing off the ball is yet another element to throw at teams.
“We just like to manipulate the defense,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “I was looking for the mismatches that we had and when DeAndre plays like that, it really gives us that X-factor.”
That’s not to say Napier can coast Sunday.
UConn will probably need the Napier of the first two games and the Daniels and Boatright that were on display Friday in order to advance to the Final Four.
Not just the scoring, but the poise Boatright showed in slowing down what started out as a frenetic and sloppy game. Or dominance in the paint that Daniels displayed that caused Iowa State’s big men to appear to lose interest at times.
Daniels’ post presence gives them a much-needed third option. Napier said Daniels had been pressing, but seems to have his offensive confidence back.
“I don’t put limitations on my players,” Ollie said of dealing with Daniels’ up-and-down season. “You’ve got to understand they’re still young men. They’re trying to develop and grow. It’s not about points for him. It’s about getting touches. It’s about him bringing energy.”
Without Napier, UConn simply isn’t a tournament team. But without Daniels and Boatright, the Huskies aren’t in the Elite Eight.
Napier got them to March. His sidekicks will push them to April.