A Garden Party: UConn Can…Again

One year after postseason ban, Huskies make Final Four

Sure, you can take the Connecticut Huskies out of Madison Square Garden. But removing their habit of winning big games and championships at the World’s Most Famous Arena?

Fat chance.

Led by another dynamic performance from senior guard Shabazz Napier, seventh-seeded UConn reached its fifth Final Four in school history by defeating No. 4 seed Michigan State 60-54 in the East Regional final, the Huskies’ third consecutive win against a higher-seeded opponent in the tournament. Connecticut, completing its first year in the American Athletic Conference, now heads to Arlington, Texas to take on the No.1 team in the country, the Florida Gators, in one national semifinal on Saturday.

Napier led the Huskies with 25 points, 17 of which came in the second half when Connecticut turned around a nine-point deficit. It helped that the rally came in a building that sounded more like the on-campus Gampel Pavilion in Storrs or the XL Center in Hartford due to the overwhelming support and attendance from Husky fans that either live in the New York City area or made the short trip from the Nutmeg State.

“Yeah, it’s kind of unfair,” Napier said, describing the home court advantage it enjoyed, and usually enjoys, when playing in New York. “We come here and we plant a lot of seeds here. And our fans come here and as we always say, it’s like our third home. We feel the intensity just 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 create our history and win games here.”

For the Huskies, their 11th win at Madison Square Garden since the beginning of the 2010-11 season started by them coming out of the gate fast, scoring 12 of the first 14 points of the contest. Forward DeAndre Daniels, who poured in 27 points in Friday’s Sweet 16 win vs. third-seeded Iowa State, continued where he left off as he scored six of those 12 points in that opening stretch. Michigan State, playing in a de facto road game, slowly worked its way back into the game until it took its first lead, 22-21, at the 3:28 mark of the first half on a Gary Harris three-pointer.

Michigan State seemed to get a big momentum boost to end the half on a wild, end-to-end exchange. After a turnover by Keith Appling with 32 seconds left, UConn decided to attack the basket instead of pulling the ball out and holding for the last shot, and it resulted in a Niels Giffey pass to the interior being intercepted by Matt Costello. The Spartans raced down the floor, eschewing the chance to hold for the final shot themselves. But unlike UConn, they converted on their opportunity as Denzel Valentine hit a right-wing three with 18 seconds left to extend Sparty’s lead to four at 25-21 going into halftime.

East Regional MOP Shabazz Napier (13) provided the offense, while Ryan Boatright (11) had four steals against the Spartans. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
East Regional Most Outstanding Player Shabazz Napier (13) provided the offense, while Ryan Boatright (11) had four steals against the Spartans. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Indeed, the Spartans carried over that momentum to start the second half and took the partisan crowd temporarily out of the game. The lead opened up to nine at 32-23 at the 16:33 mark after a jumper by senior Adreian Payne, who scored five of those nine Spartan points to begin the half. Suddenly, the team in green and white looked like the team that many predicted to win it all and was tabbed as the No. 2 team in the country in the preseason polls.

From then on, however, Napier, a la former UConn standout guard Kemba Walker during the 2011 Big East and NCAA Tournaments, took over. The next eight minutes saw Napier score 12 points, and he did so in almost every way possible: drives to the basket, perimeter jumpers and from the charity stripe. After hitting a three, he started to get aggressive and drove to the basket constantly against Harris, his much taller defender. Four consecutive free throws by Napier tied the game at 32 with just over 13 minutes left. Following Napier’s lead, the Huskies as a whole started to attack the basket constantly, drawing fouls inside on drives as it seemingly began a parade to the charity stripe for themselves. UConn regained, and then built upon its second-half lead mostly on free throws, and in the second half, the Huskies went a perfect 18-for-18 from the line.

“Our game plan was simple: We wanted to hit first,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie asserted. “Everybody was kind of picturing them [Michigan State] as the giant, and we didn’t want to wait for the giant. We wanted to meet our giant. And that’s what we did the first half, we met our giant and we played basketball.”

Even with the din the boisterous, almost unanimously pro-Husky crowd generated from the opening tip, a sequence at the 7:00 mark brought the crowd to its feet. After another Napier three-pointer gave UConn a 44-39 advantage, he grabbed a long rebound off of a Payne missed three and immediately found a streaking Giffey ahead of the field in the frontcourt with a 30-foot pass. Giffey soared to the basket and hammered home a two-handed slam to create a seven-point spread, and the already shaken Spartans were now facing their largest deficit of the NCAA Tournament.

“I think we got a little rattled when they started scoring buckets and we weren’t running back like we were during our little run early in the half and they took advantage of that,” said Denzel Valentine, who had nine points and eight rebounds (as well as four of Michigan State’s 16 turnovers). The lead grew to 10 before the Spartans hit consecutive threes, one by Valentine and one by Harris – who led the team with 22 points – to cut the Huskies lead to 49-45.

Keith Appling made a layup – the senior’s only points of the game – to trim UConn’s lead to 51-49 with 2:38 remaining before Napier stepped up again a couple of possessions later. After a series of dribbles, he hit a step back jumper with 1:39 left to reestablish a four-point margin. Michigan State cut it to two again on a pair of Payne free throws with 58 seconds to go, but Napier drew yet another key foul, this time with Appling hitting Napier ever so slightly on the arm as Napier followed through on a straightaway three-point attempt. Napier sank all three of the ensuing free throws, and after Phillip Nolan soared in for a thunderous dunk off a missed Spartan three on the next possession, the celebrations officially could begin.

Never regaining his All-America caliber form after a January wrist injury, senior Keith Appling only scored two points in his final college game. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Never regaining his stellar early-season form after a January wrist injury, Appling only scored two points and fouled out in his final college game. (Getty Images)

For the fourth consecutive season, the Spartans did not celebrate a trip to the Final Four, marking the first time in the Tom Izzo era that a senior class will not have participated in a Final Four.

“We didn’t reach the Final Four,” Appling, one of the three seniors on the roster, muttered. “That was the goal. We can say that we made it further than we have in the past but we didn’t accomplish our goal.”

“It sucks because I can’t even imagine what they [seniors] are going through right now,” said Michigan State junior guard Travis Trice.

As for UConn, this Final Four trip is put all the more into perspective given the fact the Huskies were banned by the NCAA in June of 2012 from participating in the 2013 NCAA Tournament due to not meeting the mandated cutline in the Academic Progress Rate report, which measures the classroom performance of every Division I team. Already with that black cloud looming over the school’s program, Jim Calhoun, the school’s longtime Hall Of Fame head coach, announced his retirement three months after the postseason ban was announced. Into the quagmire stepped in Ollie, who came back to his alma mater in 2010 as an assistant after a 13-year NBA career. With players who only had a year of eligibility remaining allowed to transfer from the school without losing eligibility due to the postseason ban, some thought UConn might have to go through a full-fledged rebuilding project in the near future. But the players stuck around and bonded together, playing through their lame duck campaign and forging an extra tight kinship that carried over to this season.

Ollie, who came close to playing in a Final Four as a player in 1995 when the Huskies lost in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion UCLA, knew the Spartans were going to be physical, and it was something he said his team was ready for, thanks to its new league.

“Yes, the Big Ten is known for that, but the American Conference is know for it too,” Ollie said. And we got our American flag waving out our window going down to Texas. And we’re going to keep it up high, and we’re going to keep playing the right basketball.”

Connecticut will be looking for its fourth national championship in men’s basketball, and in each of the three previous triumphs (1999, 2004, 2011), the Huskies won the Big East Tournament immediately prior to winning six straight in the Big Dance. So when they arrive in North Texas, they’ll hope the immortal words of Frank Sinatra ring true for them once again: If they can make it there [New York], they can make it anywhere.

[Above: Courtside interview with UConn legend Richard “Rip” Hamilton]

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