March 30, 2014
NEW YORK - Senior guard Shabazz Napier (Roxbury, Mass.) scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half to lead the University of Connecticut men's basketball team to a 60-54 victory over Michigan State in the East Region final of the NCAA Championship on Sunday before a crowd of 19,449 at Madison Square Garden.
The Huskies now advance to the NCAA Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. UConn will play Florida in the national semifinals on Saturday at 6:09 p.m. on CBS and the UConn IMG Sports Radio Network. The winner of that game plays in the national championship game on Monday, April 7. Florida has won 30-straight games entering the NCAA Final four, but their last loss was to UConn, 65-64 on Dec. 2.
After the Huskies were easily beat 81-48 by Louisville in the regular-season finale, UConn head coach Ollie showed his players video of that victory to remind them of what happens when they play frenetic defense.
"We're going to be well prepared, because I know about these guys' heart," Ollie said. "That's what got us through: It was a heart of a champion, heart of a lion." Connecticut was the No. 7 seed in the East Region while Michigan State was the No. 4.
Along the way to the Final Four, UConn also beat No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 seed Iowa State.
The Huskies are now 30-8 on the season while Michigan State finishes 29-9. UConn will be playing in its fifth NCAA Final Four and its third in the past six years. UConn won the NCAA Championship in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
Napier, the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player, hit three huge free throws with 37.6 seconds left, making clutch shot after clutch shot just as Kemba Walker did when Napier was a freshman. The Huskies rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to become the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
"His will to win - you could just see it," said Gary Harris, who led Michigan State with 22 points. "He wasn't going to let his team lose."
The undersized Huskies matched Michigan State's physical play box-out for box-out, holding the Spartans to just six offensive rebounds and six points in the paint. "We're physical, too," said Ollie. "Don't get it mixed up. We are predators out there."
UConn dared Michigan State to shoot three-pointers, and the Spartans nearly made enough, going 11 for 29 from behind the arc. Harris was four for nine on threes, but his teammates were a combined 10 for 32 from the floor.
Trailing 51-49 with more than two minutes left, Michigan State had a chance to tie or take the lead. Adreian Payne fumbled the ball away, and Napier drilled a jumper on the other end.
After Payne's free throws pulled the Spartans back within two, Keith Appling was whistled for a foul - his fifth- for contact with Napier on a three-point attempt.
Napier extended the lead to 56-51, and after Travis Trice missed a three, sophomore forward Phillip Nolan (Milwaukee, Wisc.) slipped free for a dunk that clinched the victory.
"We got what we deserved today," MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. "I tried to tell these guys that, when you get to the tournament, you got to bring it every second. And today Connecticut did, and we just kind of weren't as good as we have been."
Junior guard Ryan Boatright (Aurora, Ill.) made four steals as Michigan State committed 16 turnovers. Some were caused by UConn's quickness, others by what Izzo called poor decisions by the Spartans.
Junior forward DeAndre Daniels (Los Angeles, Calif.) shut down Branden Dawson, who scored 24 points in Michigan State's Sweet 16 win over top-seeded Virginia. Dawson attempted just three field goals, making one, to finish with five points.
Payne hit two long jumpers to put Michigan State up 32-23 less than four minutes into the second half, but Napier started driving, getting the bigger Appling in foul trouble and UConn back in the game.
"When Coach looks at me a certain way, I just know I got to be more aggressive," Napier said.
After hitting four straight free throws to tie the score at 32 with 12:38 left, Napier was struck in the face by Harris - the UConn guard was called for a foul on the play - and left the court with his nose gushing blood. He was back less than a minute later when Daniels completed a three-point play to give the Huskies the lead for good.
Boatright's contested three-pointer with the shot clock winding down put UConn up 49-39 with less than seven minutes left.