NEW YORK -- The torch was passed with 17 minutes to play.
He had the lane, he had the shot, he had the likely defensive foul. No one would've faulted him for going to the rim. But instead of making a play he's surely made hundreds of times in a life of basketball, he tossed the ball over the defender into his teammate's waiting hands for an easy bucket, and thus Shabazz Napier's game became DeAndre Daniels' game. And thus Iowa State, in the uneven form that it took on Friday night in the Sweet 16 at least, never really stood a chance in UConn's 81-76 win at Madison Square Garden.
For obvious and rightful reasons, Connecticut is Napier's team: He's the one who hits the memorable shots. He's the one who leads the team in nearly every major statistical category. He's the senior. He's the next in a long line of brilliant Huskies guards. He's the rightful heir to the throne of Ray Allen and Khalid El-Amin and Kemba Walker. And unlike last March, when UConn was banned from the postseason, he's not sitting at home watching River Monsters, as he said on Thursday, instead of playing in the NCAA tournament.
So from the outside, at least, this is Napier's team, and if UConn can somehow beat No. 4 seed Michigan State in Sunday's East regional final and get to the Final Four, it will instantly become one of the most memorable runs in Huskies history -- as the team fueled by Napier. But that's exactly what makes it possible for something like Daniels' second half against the Cyclones to sneak up on you.
"He was unbelievable," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said after the game. "Shabazz and [Ryan] Boatright were really good early knocking down shots for them, and then Daniels went through that stretch in the second half where they really went to him. He was hitting mid-range shots over extended hands, and got free for a couple threes where I didn't think we went out there and got a hand up, even though we were in the area. They did a good job going to him. And give [coach Kevin Ollie] credit for continuing to feed the hot hand."
It's one thing to ride one hot hand, another to find a second. But find three, and a shorthanded opponent, even one as good as Iowa State, isn't going to have a chance to catch up. Napier and Boatright put on an early three-point shooting clinic, hitting six of their seven in the first half, while Daniels spent that time totaling eight points and eight rebounds, plus a monster highlight-of-the-night block. Then he became that third hot hand, hitting seven of his nine second-half shots to finish with a team-high 27. The roles switched, enabling the Huskies to stay one step ahead of the defense.
"When he made that first one, and then we got him an easy one, it just -- DeAndre's a scorer, and once you feel that you have that confidence, the next shot's going to go in, and we kept feeding him and he got super hot," Napier said. "We had to cool his hand."
The Cyclones did often appear weirdly disoriented on defense, perhaps partially a result of the absence of star forward Georges Niang (who broke his foot in the Round of 64). For UConn, this is certainly not something that will repeat itself against the Spartans in the regional final. Needless to say, Michigan State's defense is not Iowa State's, and UConn will have to work harder to get many of the looks on Sunday that it saw on Friday against a team that's suddenly healthy and playing nearly at the level it did when it was as good or better than anyone in the country during nonconference play.
But UConn proved it is capable of becoming awfully difficult for any defense to defend, even one as good as Michigan State's. Whereas shots fell for nobody but Dustin Hogue most of the night for Iowa State, UConn shared the wealth, forcing the Cyclones to deal with the impossibility of containing a red-hot Napier (not to mention his backcourt partner in crime Boatright) who naturally draws enough attention as it is, then fluidly shifting the offense to the versatile 6-foot-9 forward Daniels, who is a matchup nightmare when dialed in. It all happened so naturally and easily. And it's not like we haven't seen it before. Remember, top overall seed Florida's last loss came in December to these Huskies, in a game in which Napier and Daniels scored 40 of the team's 65 points.
"It's not just always DeAndre, it's not just always Shabazz," Ollie said. "If we have a balanced attack, we can win a lot of games, and we can continue to play. And that's what I want our guys to understand."
This is the NCAA tournament, a time in which any bad from the regular season can quickly be forgotten. All that matters is the team you are right now, a time when the whole "one game a time" cliché becomes painfully true. Tournament experience last year or not, UConn is a veteran team capable of spreading the wealth.
If UConn continues to advance into the Final Four, it's going to be in large part because of the senior Napier's uncanny ability to hit big shots on top of doing just about everything well for the Huskies. But that enormous success opens the door for others to step in and grab their share, and when someone like Daniels is ready and willing to rise to the occasion, as he was on Friday, then the difference between this seventh-seeded UConn teams and the tournament favorites is negligible.