Five things: UConn triumphs at MSG
March, 30, 2014
By Kieran Darcy | ESPN.com
NEW YORK -- Connecticut is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 2011. The Huskies won the East Regional at Madison Square Garden, the first NCAA tournament games held at the historic venue since 1961, beating Michigan State 60-54 in the regional final Sunday.
UConn is the first No. 7 seed to advance to the Final Four since the tournament was expanded in 1985. Here are five quick observations from the game:
Back and forth: For a low-scoring contest, this was a game of wild runs.
Connecticut jumped in front 12-2 less than five minutes in. Michigan State got off the mat and then some, taking a 25-21 halftime lead. The Spartans led by as many as nine (32-23) early in the second half. Then the Huskies took over again, with a 26-7 spurt to go in front 49-39, and held off Michigan State in the end.
We billed this game as a fight between college basketball heavyweights, and it lived up to the hype. The punch-counterpunch action was riveting. And the Garden, 19,499 fans strong, was the perfect backdrop.
Difference maker: You know what? It's time to stop comparing Shabazz Napier to Kemba Walker, and simply marvel at the player Napier has become in his own right.
Napier propelled his team to victory on Sunday, as he has all season long. His stat line: 25 points (17 of them coming in the second half), six rebounds and four assists.
He hit the biggest shot of the game, a jumper with 1:39 remaining to make it 53-49. And then he hit all three free throws after Keith Appling fouled him beyond the arc with 30.6 seconds left, making it 56-51.
Speaking of free throws ... It's not talked about nearly enough, but success (or failure) at the foul line can go a long way.
Connecticut was ranked sixth in the country in free throw percentage coming in, shooting 76.9 percent as a team. The Huskies shot 20-for-22 in the regional semis against Iowa State, and 21-for-22 on Sunday against Michigan State. It's no coincidence they are headed to Texas.
Out of snyc: Michigan State simply looked out of sorts offensively for much of this game, despite having its full complement of players after an injury-riddled season.
Branden Dawson scored just five points, after pouring in 50 points in the first two games of this tournament. Adreian Payne had 13, but shot just 4-for-14 and spent most of his time on the perimeter. Gary Harris came through with a team-high 22. But backcourt mate Appling scored just two points.
Appling and Payne, both seniors, become the first two four-year players in Tom Izzo's 19-year tenure to fail to advance to a Final Four.
Kev-in Oll-ie! The UConn fans chanted that salute to their coach after the victory, and it was well deserved.
Ollie has done a remarkable job taking over for Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun, guiding the Huskies through their postseason ban last season and now guiding them to a Final Four in just his second year at the helm.
The Huskies are in good hands for a long time to come.