NEW YORK — On the back of Shabazz Napier, some frenetic pressure defense and a raucous Madison Square Garden crowd, No. 7 seed Connecticut is heading to the Final Four after a 60-54 win over Michigan State.
Napier finished the game with 25, complemented by DeAndre Daniels’ 12 and Ryan Boatright’s 11. That same trio helped lead a defensive charge that flustered the Spartans into 16 turnovers and 39 percent shooting. Senior guard Keith Appling seemed particularly bothered by the pressure, scoring two points, committing four turnovers and fouling out of the game, including a devastating fifth foul in the final minute.
It was a game of runs, as an early 12-2 UConn lead was gone by halftime, replaced by a 25-21 Spartan advantage following bouts of cold shooting from both teams. Michigan State pushed their advantage to nine early in the second half, but Napier and Daniels’ push spun the game back in UConn’s favor. Two Adreian Payne free throws cut it to 53-51 with 57 seconds remaining, but Appling fouled Napier on a three on the ensuing possession, allowing the Huskies to extend their lead to five and essentially put the game away.
Napier, named Most Outstanding Player for the East region following the game, played part of the second half with a bloody nose. He was a perfect nine-for-nine from the free throw line, contributing to UConn's 21-for-22 effort on the day. The Huskies have been nearly perfect from the charity stripe, going 20-of-22 from the line in the Sweet Sixteen versus Iowa State.
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Sophomore Gary Harris - the talented wing projected to go in the top 10 of this summer’s NBA draft – was the leading scorer for the Spartans, putting up 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting. The rest of the team shot 27 percent. This loss also ends Tom Izzo's run of at least one Final Four every four years.
The teams were familiar with one another, with rotations remaining mostly intact since their 2012-2013 season opener in Germany. That game was Kevin Ollie’s first game as head coach of the Huskies, meaning he’s now 2-0 against Tom Izzo and, more importantly, 4-0 in NCAA tournament games.
While Michigan State fans in the crowd were as vocal as they could be, they were no match for the droves of Connecticut fans that had made the relatively short trek to town. With UConn trailing 32-26 at a media timeout in the second half, the video boards in the Garden alternated showing Husky legend Rip Hamilton and Spartan hero Mateen Cleaves, who were both in the house to support their alma maters. The ovations for Hamilton — and boos for Cleaves — reinvigorated a Connecticut crowd that had seen a long stretch of uninspiring basketball.
Connecticut is heading back to the Final Four for the first time since 2011, when Kemba Walker dragged them to the championship. Current Huskies Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander were all contributors on that run. All of those players could have bailed after low APR scores denied the program a postseason opportunity last year, but their commitment to Ollie and their university has resulted in a chance at their second national title.
The Huskies will face Florida, whose current 30-game win streak started after Connecticut defeated them in December. That game ended - of course - on a Napier buzzer-beater.
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