Connecticut kept its miracle run alive Sunday, as the No. 7 Huskies earned a trip to the Final Four thanks to a 60-54 win over No. 4 Michigan State at Madison Square Garden.
Shabazz Napier had another incredible game for the Huskies, scoring 25 points in the win. He has now scored at least 19 points in all four tournament games to help his squad keep the dream of a national championship alive.
DeAndre Daniels added 12 points, eight rebounds and two blocks, and the Huskies made 21 of 22 free throws to secure the win. They also forced 16 Spartans turnovers while committing just eight.
Gary Harris scored 22 for Michigan State, but he got little help from his teammates as the Big Ten tournament champions fell short of the Final Four. Spartans head coach Tom Izzo spoke on the disappointing result after the final horn, via Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel:
Izzo: "I did not think we played very well." Lamented "turnovers for touchdowns." He credited UConn, also. "Today, we deserved what we got."— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) March 30, 2014
When the game first started, it seemed Connecticut would run away with it. The Huskies played excellent defense, and the Spartans needed almost eight minutes to score more than two points.
UConn held a 12-2 lead, which fueled the partisan crowd, as noted by Brad Evans of Yahoo Sports:
UConn feeding off 'neutral' crowd's energy. Highly active on both ends of the floor. Michigan St. a bit stunned over first four minutes.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) March 30, 2014
Unfortunately for those fans hoping for an easy upset, Michigan State came back strong with some great outside shooting from key players. Adreian Payne hit a couple of three-pointers before Harris started to take over the contest:
Gary Harris carrying Michigan State all by himself. He has 12 and has given the Spartans the lead. #UCONNvsMSU— SI College Hoops (@si_ncaabb) March 30, 2014
A Denzel Valentine three helped Michigan State get to halftime with a 25-21 lead.
As Brian Snow of Scout.com pointed out, the Spartans didn't even play very well to establish that lead:
Michigan State probably played an at best C+ half of basketball and has a 4 point lead.— Brian Snow (@BSnowScout) March 30, 2014
They were fortunate to get a number of outside shots to fall—not their usual strategy, as noted by Brett Edgerton of ESPN:
Michigan St held to 2 paint pts in first half...have scored at least 30 paint pts in each tourney game. But MSU does have 14 transition pts.— Brett Edgerton (@EditorEdge) March 30, 2014
Michigan State built the lead to 32-23 before a Napier three-point shot ended one rally and started another. The Huskies scored 12 in a row to take a 35-32 advantage, a run created by a poor effort from key players on the other side, according to Dana O'Neil of ESPN:
Nada from Appling, one point from Dawson Offense out of synch. UConn storming back. Partisan crowd happy— Dana O'Neil (@ESPNDanaOneil) March 30, 2014
Finally, the Spartans got back on the scoreboard after an extended drought:
Michigan State finally breaks a 6+ minute scoring drought with two Gary Harris free throws. #UCONNvsMSU— SI College Hoops (@si_ncaabb) March 30, 2014
Still, they could not get settled on the offensive end, as missed shots and turnovers doomed them to even more problems. The poor showing confused Nicole Auerbach of USA Today:
It's almost like Michigan State is trying to turn the ball over every possession.— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) March 30, 2014
Connecticut kept the momentum going, igniting the crowd with this fast-break dunk:
Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports had this to say when Connecticut went up by 10 points with six minutes remaining:
Pretty amazing. UConn is just demoralizing Michigan State at this point.— Pat Forde (@YahooForde) March 30, 2014
Of course, Michigan State would not go away easily. The squad clawed its way back to make it a two-point game with under a minute remaining, but once again Napier made plays when it counted:
ONIONS! "The Showman" with a show-stopper. Man Napier is clutch.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) March 30, 2014
He hit a key jumper late and then made three free throws in a row to help his team secure the upset victory. The senior has been incredible throughout the tournament and continues to impress late in games.
Napier also got a great endorsement from his former teammate:
Best PG in the country. Shabazz Napier— Kemba walker (@KembaWalker) March 30, 2014
Kemba Walker led Connecticut to a surprise national championship in 2011, and Napier hopes to do the same three years later.
Besides the point guard's leadership, the team has to be very proud of its defense throughout the game. After defeating Iowa State in the Sweet 16 while holding Melvin Ejim to just seven points, Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie discussed his strategy for Michigan State, via Michael Vega of The Boston Globe:
We’re going to have to do the same thing with [Michigan State’s] Adreian Payne, but then [Branden] Dawson, we’ve got to keep him off the backboard. I thought we did that in spurts [Friday] night, but we have to do it at a high level. We’re going to have to hit first and we have to commit to [getting] hit.
We’re going to have to corral basketballs and 50-50 situations. We got to get every one of those balls, because they’re a tough-minded team. And I think we’re tough, too.
UConn completed this strategy, as Payne and Dawson combined for just 18 points.
The squad will now move on to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, with an opportunity to play for a national championship. However, it will not be easy with a matchup against Florida set up in the next round.
ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan provided a look at the Gators after their Elite Eight victory over Dayton:
That next step has manifested itself in a season-for-the-ages-in-progress: 30 straight wins, an unbeaten SEC season, a No. 1 overall seed and now a trip to Arlington as the clear favorite to win the NCAA title. When this peerless run began in November, the Gators were dealing with suspensions and injuries that devastated Donovan's roster. Now Florida is the most complete, and maybe the deepest, team in the country.
Then again, that 30-game winning streak started after a defeat at the hands of Connecticut. The squad will enter the national semifinals with loads of confidence and the mindset that it can beat anyone in the country.
After four impressive victories in the NCAA tournament, you certainly do not want to pick against the Huskies.
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