Video report by Rich Coppola, Fox CT
Text by Dom Amore, Hartford Courant
NEW YORK – Conference realignment rocked the landscape, the man who built the program into a national power retired on the eve of a season, the NCAA forced them to spend last March in postseason purgatory.
But the UConn brand in men’s basketball has endured, just as coach Kevin Ollie has always promised it would. Their former rivals are going to the ACC or Big 10, the Huskies are going back to the Final Four.
This UConn secured with a 60-54 win over Michigan State in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. The first No. 7 seed ever to reach a Final Four, the Huskies came from behind and rode the huge crowd of UConn fans that found their way into the Garden to out hustle the favored Spartans, to win despite shooting just 33 percent from the floor.
Trailing by nine early in the second half, all the important statistical trends going against them, the Huskies reached down and found one more surge. They did it with defense, holding Michigan State scoreless for nearly six minutes and regained control of the game with an 11-0 run.
Shabazz Napier began that run with a three-point goal, and shook off slow shooting stretch to score 25 points. DeAndre Daniels had 12 points and seven rebounds. UConn made XX of XX from the line, extending the trend that got them wins over St. Joseph, Villanova and Iowa State in this tournament. Napier, fouled attempting a three-point shot, made all three at the line with 30 seconds left to seal it.
Now they will play Florida State, the top-ranked team in the country and top-seeded team in this tournament. The Gators have not lost since Napier beat them at the buzzer at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 2. The Huskies are 30-8, going to the Final Four for the fifth time since 1999, the third time since 2009. They go representing a strange, new conference, the American Athletic Confere, and go with Jim Calhoun cheering instead of coaching. But to the Final Four, they go.
Gary Harris scored 22 for the Spartans (29-9)
The Huskies came out with a surge, the crowd at the Garden sounding as if it were a packed Gampel Pavilion, only twice its size. UConn’s defense forced a handful of turnovers, and UConn started out, as it did Friday night, with its shooting touch.
Shabazz Napier hit a fall-away three to give UConn an 11-2 lead, and DeAndre Daniels, who had scored two early field goals, added a free throw to make it a 10-point lead with 15:12 left in the half.
The Spartans took the punch, then began fighting back, their defense asserting itself and cooling off the Huskies’ shooters. Adriean Payne, the 6-10 forward, stepped out and hit a couple of wide-open three-point goals to help Michigan State trim the lead down to two points.
As the game settled in to the grinding defensive affair that was expected, Gary Harris hit threes on successive trips down the floor to give the Spartans their first lead, 22-21, with 3:27 to go. Harris was 5-for-7 in the first half, the most effective shooter on the floor, scoring 12.
Denzel Valentine’s three just before the half gave Michigan State a 25-21 lead, as UConn made only 8 of its last 22. The going got rougher in the second half, Payne hit another open three to extend the Spartan lead to nine points with 16:33 to play.
Everything was negative when Napier made a three, and Ryan Boatright’s long pass to Phil Nolan ended in a layup to cut Michigan State’s lead to 32-28. Two UConn stops, Napier got himself to the line and cut it to 32-30 with 13:20 to go, and suddenly the game was playing at the Huskies’ pace again. Two more from Napier at the line, and the Huskies tied it. MSU went 5:50 without scoring, as the Huskies regained the lead on Daniels’ three-point play with 11:46 to go.
Ryan Boatright made a steal, and ended up at the line for two free throws, and Napier made a three to extend UConn’s lead to 44-39, then Giffey scored off another turnover and fast break to make it 46-39 with 7:28 to go.