UConn felt right at home in MSG
The Huskies found their comfort zone in knocking off Iowa State
NEW YORK -- Madison Square Garden looked a little different and sounded a little different. But in the end, it produced a very familiar result.
Connecticut, winner of seven Big East tournaments in this storied building, took the first NCAA tournament game at the Garden in 53 years with an 81-76 victory over Iowa State.
It was an upset in terms of seeding, and by Vegas' standards (barely). But to those of us who've watched the Huskies win big games here time and time again, it came as no surprise.
"My student-athletes played together, they played hard, and at the end of the game we played 40 [minutes] full to get this win," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.
The surroundings were, sadly, NCAA-sanitized. Instead of the regular Madison Square hardwood, we saw a generic court identical to those at every other tournament site.
Famed public address announcer Mike Walczewski was barred from using his traditional greeting at the start of the night: "Welcome to Madison Square Garden, the world's most famous arena!"
But once the ball was tipped, normalcy was quickly restored.
Connecticut trailed for a grand total of 33 seconds, less than two minutes in. Shabazz Napier took care of that, burying the first of his four first-half 3-pointers, giving UConn a 5-3 lead.
That should come as no surprise, either. Napier has been brilliant in this tournament and throughout his senior season.
UConn built its lead to 10 at the half. Iowa State, the fifth-highest scoring team in the country (83.2 ppg), looked painfully out of sync, shooting 31 percent from the field (9-for-29).
Ollie said the game plan was to slow down the tempo: "Not letting them score in the first 15 seconds [of the shot clock] was our key and that was on the board."
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg gave UConn plenty of credit, but he also liked some of his team's looks, and rightfully so.
"We had some guys that hit some shots all year that just didn't fall tonight," Hoiberg said. "And that's the way it goes."
The Huskies didn't ease up after the break, either. Six quick points by forward DeAndre Daniels led to a Cyclones timeout, and then a Daniels 3-pointer gave Connecticut its largest lead, 49-32, with 14:23 remaining, prompting Hoiberg to call for time again.
Napier (19 points, five assists, five rebounds) and backcourt mate Ryan Boatright (16 points) played well, but Daniels was the difference, scoring 17 of his team-high 27 points in the second half. He also had 10 rebounds.
"He was unbelievable tonight," Hoiberg said. "He was hitting mid-range shots over extended hands, and got free for a couple 3s where I didn't think we went out there and got a hand up, even though we were in the area. They did a good job going to him."
But the Big 12 tournament champs didn't go down without a fight. Thanks primarily to forward Dustin Hogue, a Yonkers, N.Y., native who poured in 34 points in his Garden debut, the Cyclones hung around, eventually closing the gap to four, 67-63, with just over two minutes left.
Connecticut finished the job at the foul line. The Huskies were ranked seventh in Division I in free-throw percentage (76.5), and far exceeded that Friday night: 20-for-22 (90.9 percent), including 15 straight makes down the stretch.
"Coach is on us all the time about making free throws," Boatright said. "We shoot a lot of free throws in practice, and he always says it's going to come down to free throws or one or two possessions. So when we got to the line, we had the confidence to knock them down."
"I don't think it was nerves," Kane said. "We shot around earlier. We shot here [Thursday]. So it's what we do, and we're a team that likes to play fast. We like to get up shots, and I think we got good looks in the first half, and we missed a lot of shots. "
Hoiberg lauded his team's comeback effort, particularly after losing third-leading scorer Georges Niang to injury in the Cyclones' first game of this tournament.
"[In the] second half I thought we were very aggressive and figured some things out," Hoiberg said. "Got much better movement and went down swinging and that's exactly what I would expect out of this team."
But we got what we expected from UConn, too. And that includes a heavily pro-Huskies crowd that made the trip and invaded midtown Manhattan, as usual.
"It just felt like a home game," Napier said. "When you have that crowd behind you pushing you, good things will happen."
And good things are certainly happening for Connecticut right now. A year after being banned from postseason play entirely, the Huskies are in the Elite Eight and 40 minutes away from the Final Four.
Sound familiar? You bet it does.
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