NEW YORK -- Ultimately, Shabazz Napier's shot isn't what mattered.
Winning is the goal, obviously, and Napier's stunning, buzzer-beating putback jumper at a home game in December gave Florida its second and final loss and Connecticut its biggest win of the season. It was undeniably important, at least for appearances. But in retrospect, the previous 39-plus minutes had said everything that needed to be said: Connecticut was more than capable of holding its own against talented, senior-laden Florida. The previous year, in which the Huskies were forced to stay home in March, was ancient history. The Huskies were all grown up.
UConn has trudged through an up-and-down season, in which it returned to tournament eligibility and debuted in the new American Athletic Conference. That 65-64 win stood as the regular-season high point; then there was the aftermath of the regular-season finale, a brutal 81-48 loss to Louisville. Afterward, coach Kevin Ollie responded by putting in the tape of the Florida game from three months earlier, to remind his team how it was capable of playing.
"Coach showed us the tape before we started winning these games; we got back together and that tape is crazy," guard Ryan Boatright said. "We were everywhere, we were helping each other, we were closing out right and we were rebounding the basketball. So when we got to go out there and play them, we've got to play great defense."
Florida and UConn went in different directions after that meeting in December -- the Gators to the top overall seed, the Huskies to a forgotten seven. But their paths have bent back toward each other. This time, Florida is playing the role of obvious favorite in a national semifinal on Saturday, while UConn is out to once again reclaim that status it lost in the eventful three years since it stood on top of the college basketball world.
A program that won a national championship as recently as 2011 certainly can't complain, but the last three excruciatingly long years have featured a proud team tangled in a web of distractions surrounding the end of an era.
It began with the post-championship, post-Kemba Walker hangover, which saw the Huskies go 20-14 (and one-and-done in the NCAA tournament). Fresh off a freshman national title, but still a few years away from being an All-America, Napier didn't know what to do with himself, and UConn was lost.
"I didn't know how to be a leader out there at that point," Napier said. "I was doing things that I wasn't definitely happy about. I isolated myself a lot when things were down. I didn't learn how to be a leader, even though I had one of the greatest leaders in front of me my freshman year. … I was quite flustered most of the time. But I felt like I didn't play to my capabilities that year."
Napier returned for his junior year, saying he owed it to his teammates and to the university, only to have his loyalty rewarded by the Huskies plunging deeper into turmoil and uncertainty. In the summer of 2012, the NCAA slapped the program with a 2013 postseason ban because of poor Academic Progress Rate performance. Then, legendary coach Jim Calhoun decided to hang it up just two months before the 2012-13 season, leaving the job to his protégé, Kevin Ollie -- at first on an interim basis, then full time. UConn went on to finish 20-10, but there was no NCAA tournament reward, not even a trip to the final Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Two years after winning a national title as a freshman, Napier couldn't even bring himself to watch basketball.
"To be honest, I didn't watch one game," Napier said of last year's NCAA tournament, echoing a sentiment expressed by Boatright. "I was more into watching River Monsters, stuff like that. I didn't want to watch because I felt like if I did, I would be aggravated or annoyed with it."
Again, though, Napier returned to UConn for more. This time, he said, it was because he promised his mom he'd get his degree, but it also appears he had some unfinished business as a senior after being relegated to his couch a year ago. This is a much different Napier -- one who "gives himself to his teammates," in the words of Calhoun, but also one who has repeatedly proven himself capable of putting UConn on his shoulders when he needs to, and one who has had to grow up quickly right alongside the program.
"We felt like we wanted to be there, and we felt like it wasn't our fault that we weren't there," Napier said. "We understood it was going to take a lot of hard work to get to where we want to be. Each game is going to get tougher and tougher, and you have to be ready for that."
Nobody picked UConn out of the East region, certainly -- not with Virginia, Michigan State and Iowa State all standing in its way in New York. But in the aftermath on Sunday, a ticket to the Final Four punched, Calhoun stood near midcourt, admiring the moment, a proud father just outside the spotlight as an arena still filled with Connecticut fans watched the net slowly get cut down, player by player, until Ollie took his place at the rim. Calhoun's faith in Ollie had paid off, Napier emerged as an All-America and the MVP of the East Regional, and now the transition felt complete.
"That was just a great experience," Ollie said. "It's a great time when you can get on that ladder, but I was really taking my time -- one step at a time. And that's what you've got to do to get up top of the ladder. You can't skip no steps. And the last two years we didn't skip no steps."
Of the remaining Final Four teams, UConn may be the longshot to cut down the nets, again. If they lose, the Huskies certainly won't just be happy to have been there -- but still being alive in April represents a promising launching point for Ollie and a fitting opportunity for closure for Napier.
"Life is filled with ups and downs, and Louisville was a down for us -- but actually, it promoted us," Ollie said. "That's what the down times do if you don't give up; it is your promotion. And we had a great destiny, and this is our destiny. And it's not stopped yet, and we're going to love this journey down to Texas."
Connecticut has grown up again, the supporting cast paving the way for Napier to do his thing. And the last thing Florida -- or Kentucky or Wisconsin -- will want to see is Napier with the ball in his hands and the game on the line.