A Garden Party: Sweet 16 recap from MSG

Huskies, Spartans to square off with Final Four berth on the line

Since 1961, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament has made stops in 120 different cities in the United States on the way to the Final Four. Until Friday, Manhattan and Madison Square Garden never was a destination charted on the map or punched in to the NCAA’s GPS for the tourney.

Pocatello, Idaho? Yes. Murfreesboro, Tennessee? You bet. Ogden, Utah? Check.

But not Manhattan. Not “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” Until now.

The return of the NCAA Tournament to Madison Square Garden was worth the five-plus decade wait, as the East Regional semifinals got started with seventh-seeded Connecticut’s Cinderella run continuing with an 81-76 win over No. 3 Iowa State. In the nightcap, Michigan State, the four seed and favorite of many experts to advance to the Final Four from this region, took a step closer to doing so with a thrilling 61-59 triumph over top-seeded Virginia. With the proximity of the state of Connecticut to Manhattan, as well as a legion of fans coming up from Charlottesville, the “Mecca of basketball” was kept abuzz from the opening tip to begin Friday. But what else would you expect from sporting events inside one of the grandest stages in American sports?

Here’s a recap of both contests:

UConn 81, Iowa State 76: The big lament of Connecticut’s move from the Big East to the American Athletic Conference before the current school year was the fact that the Huskies wouldn’t be able to compete in the Big East Tournament, where many of UConn’s March memories had been weaved. But after earlier NCAA Tournament wins last week over Saint Joseph’s and Villanova in upstate New York (Buffalo), UConn returned to the Garden and played like it never left. After Iowa State took an early 3-2 lead, the Huskies never trailed, as senior guard Shabazz Napier hit four three-pointers in the next nine minutes to help open up a 22-14 lead. Right after, junior forward DeAndre Daniels scored UConn’s next seven points as the Huskies took a 10-point lead into halftime. That hot stretch proved to be just an appetizer, as Daniels blazed out of the gate in the second half, scoring 13 of UConn’s first 15 points in the half as he was almost chiefy responsible for the Huskies building their biggest lead of the game at 49-32.

UConn's DeAndre Daniels recorded his fourth double-double of the season in the upset win over the Cyclones. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
UConn’s DeAndre Daniels (2) recorded his fourth double-double of the season in the upset win over the Cyclones. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Iowa State, playing without injured sophomore forward and offense facilitator Georges Niang, awoke from their doldrums and started to make a comeback similar to the late flurry that carried the Cyclones to New York in their third-round win against North Carolina in San Antonio. Yonkers native Dustin Hogue made a grand homecoming to the New York City area, scoring 34 points – 20 in the second half – while guard DeAndre Kane had nine of his 16 in the second. The Cyclones got within five points a couple of times, but never cut their deficit to a one-possession game to really put pressure on UConn. What didn’t help the Cyclones comeback attempt was the fact that forward Melvin Ejim, the Big 12’s Player of the Year, was saddled with foul trouble all game, scoring only seven points and making only three of his 13 shot attempts.

[More: Post-game interview with UConn guard Terrence Samuel]

Michigan State 61, Virginia 59: In the matchup against the top seed (Virginia) against the prohibitive favorite to advance to the Final Four from the region (Michigan State), it was the Spartans that showed more toughness down the stretch to pull out a two-point win. Virginia’s defense was the best in Division I, allowing only 55.3 points per game, but you would not have thought that at the beginning by watching Michigan State hit seven of its first 10 shots on it’s way to opening up a 23-13 lead halfway through the first half. Branden Dawson, playing in his ninth game since coming back from a broken bone in his right hand, scored over 20 points for the second consecutive NCAA Tournament game, scything Virginia’s interior defense to the tune of 24 points and 10 rebounds.

Virginia, however, showed why they earned the top seed and why they won the regular season and tournament championship in the ACC. After cutting Sparty’s lead to four at the half, the Cavaliers went on a 13-5 run to begin the second half and opened a 40-36 lead. The orange-and-blue clad fans that came up from Charlottesville made Madison Square Garden sound almost deafening during the run, something that another group of orange-and-blue clad fans that come to the arena often (New York Knicks fans) have not been able to do much during this season. Immediately after Virginia’s surge, the Spartans went on a 7-0 run, capped off by a Travis Trice three to give the Spartans the lead for good at 43-40. Virginia was able to tie the game at 51, but with 1:29 left, Adreian Payne hit a three from the left wing to give State the lead at 54-51. After a defensive stand, Payne threw an inch-perfect alley-oop pass to Dawson, who flushed it through the hoop and gave State the breathing room they finally needed to see off Virginia.

In his final game in a Cavalier uniform, senior Joe Harris paced Virginia with 17 points. Malcom Brogdon also had 17 for the Hoos.

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