Call it poetic justice.
One year after the NCAA forced the UConn men's basketball team to forfeit their postseason because of academic transgressions committed by a former administration, Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, Niels Giffey, et al. are having the last laugh: Just three years after winning their third national championship (two, if you discount last year's ill-fated non-postseason) the Huskies are back in the Final Four. They did so by shocking the world—that is the world outside of Connecticut—defeating an over-hyped Michigan State team, 60-54, before a raucus, jam-packed, highly partisan crowd of 19,449 at jam-packed Madison Square Garden on Sunday.
Shabazz Napier—named the Most Outstanding Player of the Eastern Regionals—led the way for the Huskies, scoring a game high 25 points, 17 of them coming in the second half. DeAndre Daniels chipped in with 12 points, while Ryan Boatright added 11 for Connecticut, which improved to 30-8.
Gary Harris led the Spartans, who fell to 29-9, with 22 points, while 6-10 senior forward Adreian Payne, who scored 41 points in Michigan State's 93-78 win over Delaware in the second round, was the only other Spartan in double digits with 13 points.
The Huskies raced out to an early 12-2 lead in the first five minutes of the game, but the Spartans chipped away and finally took the lead, 22-21, on a three-pointer by Harris with 3:28 left until intermission. Another trey, this one by Denzel Valentine, gave Michigan State a 25-21 lead headed into the locker room.
Connecticut's defensive strategy was to pack the lane against the bigger, more physical Spartans, and dare them to shoot from downtown. And Michigan State bit, taking 29 shots from beyond the arc, and hitting on 11. Harris alone was 4-for-9 from three-point land. But the Spartans' size advantage was successfully neutralized, as Michigan State scored just six points in the paint. Indeed, the Huskies outscored the Spartans in the paint, 16-6. And while Connecticut had just a one rebound advantage off the offensive boards—7-6—the Huskies scored eight second-chance points to just two for the Spartans.
The Spartans led by as much as 32-23, after a trey followed by a two-point jumper by Payne with 16:33 remaining in the contest. A lesser team would have surely faded. But not these Huskies.
Connecticut went on a 12-0 run culminated by a jumper by Daniels with 11:46 remaining. That gave Huskies a 34-32 advantage—a lead they wound not relinquish the rest of the way.
“Coach told to us keep our composure,” said Napier. “They made their run and it was time for us to make ours. And when Coach looks at me a certain way, I just know I got to be more aggressive, and I got to open shots when my teammates got me the ball and we just kept running. And guys were just making shots. Guys were just feeling the intensity that the fans were bringing, and we just were fortunate enough to get the 'W'.”
Which isn't to say the final 10 minutes were a cakewalk.
With the Huskies leading by two, 51-49, with 2:38 remaining in regulation, the Spartans had a chance to tie the game or take the lead after a missed three-point attempt by Niels Giffey (6 points, 5 rebounds). But after Branden Dawson turned the ball over, Napier responded with a 14-point jumper, putting the Huskies up by four with 1:39 remaining. After Keith Appling fouled Napier attempting to shoot a three-pointer, and the Connecticut star, who was named First Team All-America on Monday, calmly dropped in all three freebies, Connecticut led by five, 56-51, with 31 seconds to go. A missed three-point attempt by Michigan's Travis Trice and a dunk in transition by Phil Nolan and the Huskies were on their way to Arlington, Tex.
“It was just a great game plan,” said UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, who now has a 4-0 NCAA Tournament record. “Our players executed the game plan perfectly. My coaching staff came up with a great design out there, and the defense was amazing. It was great to get off to a great start. We wanted to throw the first punch and I think we did that. At the end of the first half we had a lull, and then in the second half we turned it on.
“Everybody was kind of picturing them as the giant, and we didn't want to wait for the giant,” continued Ollie. “We wanted to go meet our giant. And that's what we did the first half, we met our giant and we played basketball.”
And while neither team seemed able to stay in an offensive rhythm for long stretches, both teams played solid D throughout. Connecticut's was just a little bit better. Perhaps the key stat of the game was 16 turnovers forced by Connecticut. Boatright alone accounted for four steals.
“They tell me all the time that I'm the defensive stopper for the point guards,” said Boatright. “So I take pride in my defense, picking them up 94 feet, the entire length of the floor. Even if I can't pick a steal, just turning them and turning them and getting them uncomfortable so they can't run the offense so smoothly—it just helps the team. So even though my shots weren't falling today, as long as I was on the floor I was going to do something to impact the game. Today it was the defense.”
Then there was the job that Daniels did on Branden Dawson, who scored 24 points in Michigan State's 61-59 victory over Virginia, the East Region's No. 1 seed. Dawson finished with just five points against the Huskies.
“The biggest key to the whole day is we turned the ball over,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose teams have reached the Final Four six times in the past 15 years—but none since 2010. Indeed, this is the first class of Spartan seniors not to reach the Final Four in the Rizzo era.
“We did not bring our 'A' game today, and we got what we deserved.”
“Those turnovers definitely cost us,” said Harris. “We just have to be better from top to bottom, and we just can't let those things happen.”
The game had the feel of an old Big East championship game—of which Connecticut won 11 in xx years—because of the site. Over the years, Madison Square Garden had become almost a home-away-from-home for the Huskies.
“Yeah, it's kind unfair,” said Napier. “We feel real comfortable here. It's exciting to play here. We feel the intensity from our crowd. We feel the intensity just from the overwhelming sensation when you first walk in here. It's just a special feeling to continue to create our history and win games here.”
While it's true that at the Garden, the fans became Connecticut's “sixth man,” Ollie was quick to point out who actually won the game.
”At the end of the day, we are playing against Michigan State,” he said. “The fans can't come down and stick Adreian Payne. Fans can't box out Branden Dawson. Our players have to do that.
“But [the fans] do give us the energy when we get down. We got down by 10 or 11 or something in the second half, and in unison they stood up and you can feed off that energy.”
So now it's off to Arlington, where the Huskies will take on Florida—the No. 1-ranked team in the country and the top seed in the entire tournament. Since losing to the Huskies, 65-64, on Dec. 2 at Gampel, the Gators have reeled off 21 straight wins. (The only other team to best Florida this year, Wisconsin, will be playing Kentucky in the other national semifinal.) Tip-off at AT&T Stadium will be at 6:09 p.m., and the game will be televised on TBS. It can also be heard on the UConn IMG Sports Network.