Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun joked last week that he still didn't know all his players' names, much less how good they're going to be.
After knocking out a heavyweight in a championship-caliber bout, he - and everyone else, for that matter - should know these young Huskies are for real.
Trading blows in the first half and big shots in the second, Connecticut solidified its return to elite-program status by knocking off No. 2 Michigan State 70-67 in a physical Maui Invitational semifinal on Tuesday.
"We just showed the world we can play," said UConn's Kemba Walker, who scored 30 points and hit a key jumper with less than a minute left.
Boy, did they.
Coming off a disappointing 2009-10 season, Connecticut (4-0) was looking for a prestige-building win.
The Huskies got it, fighting the mighty Spartans every inch every minute, refusing to be pushed around by a team projected to be a national title contender.
Walker had another big scoring night and hit the biggest shot, a fallaway jumper with 52 seconds left. Alex Oriakhi dominated inside for 15 points and 17 rebounds. UConn was good defensively, too, holding one of the nation's best teams to 40 percent shooting.
The Huskies made it interesting by missing five free throws in the final 1:11, but survived Draymond Green's midcourt heave at the buzzer to head into the championship game against No. 8 Kentucky or No. 13 Washington.
"This is an absolute tremendous team win," Calhoun said.
Michigan State (3-1) had three chances to tie in the final 20 seconds, but Green missed two free throws, Kalin Lucas threw a pass to no one on a miscommunication with Durrell Summers and Green was just short on his desperation shot.
The Spartans had more chances than that throughout the game, but struggled to get good looks against UConn's long-and-athletic defense and had some key turnovers late, including two after players fell on slippery spots near midcourt.
"I'm very disappointed with the way we finished," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "We had some things that just didn't work out way."
Green was at his do-it-all best most of the game, finishing with 22 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots. He kept Michigan State in it with his offensive rebounding in the second half, but was kicking himself for missing those two free throws with 20 seconds left.
"Basically it falls on my shoulders," Green said.
"I thought it was an NCAA tournament game or a Big East tournament game - it was that caliber of a game,"
Michigan State opened the tournament by escaping Chaminade's upset list, using a big second-half run to pull out a take-a-deep-breath 82-74 win over a Division II team that had one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history 19 years ago.
Connecticut had a quality win in its Maui opener, getting 29 second-half points from Walker to pull out a four-point win over up-and-coming Wichita State by four.
Even with the Huskies in rebuilding mode, this was a big early season matchup, physical, powerhouse teams from power conferences meeting in paradise.
The atmosphere, quiet in the day's first two games, was juiced for the first semifinal, fans from each team separated by a set of stairs chanting and screaming with every twist, making the high school-sized Lahaina Civic Center feel like an NCAA tournament game.
They got to see the kind of gritty, back-bending defensive game you'd expect from teams in the Big East and Big Ten, too; super athletic players knocking each other to the floor and piling on like offensive lineman for loose balls.
Walker took one of the hardest shots, flying into the photographers behind the basket on a driving layup in the first half. He's used to that kind of contact in the Big East, though, and returned minutes later to knock down a step-back 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer, ending up with 14 points by halftime.
The opening 20 minutes of the game was all about the counterpunch; nine ties and four lead changes, neither team able to make a run.
It ended, fittingly, tied at 34-all after UConn's Shabazz Napier dropped in a long 3-pointer at the buzzer, setting up the final, tension-building flurry that the Huskies pulled out.
"I thought it was an NCAA tournament game or a Big East tournament game - it was that caliber of a game," Calhoun said.
Keep it up and they'll get to experience it again.
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