Gators gone, Kentucky next

Will Yeguete, DeAndre Daniels

UConn forward DeAndre Daniels (2) controls the ball as Florida forward Will Yeguete (15) defends during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game Saturday in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

By Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

ARLINGTON, Texas _ No one could beat Florida. That’s what the UConn basketball players heard.

UConn’s win over Florida in December? A fluke, the Huskies were told.

So what happened Saturday night at AT&T Stadium? Another fluke?

That’s one whale of a tale.

UConn beat Florida 63-53 before a record crowd of 79,444 just outside Dallas, snapping the top-ranked Gators’ 30-game win streak and advancing to Monday’s national championship game.

“We love each other and we believe in each other. Even if nobody believes in us, we believe in each other and our coaching staff,” UConn guard Ryan Boatright said. “We have a lot of heart and pride for this university.”

No one in a Husky jersey should be more proud of their play than Boatright should for his defense, unless it’s DeAndre Daniels for his offense.

Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead UConn (31-8). He said a chat with former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, which centered around other doubts about the Huskies’ chances this weekend.

“We talked Friday and he was telling me that nobody is paying attention to you,” said Daniels, who has scored in double figures in eight straight games and is averaging 17.6 points in the tournament. “I told him don’t worry about it. Everybody will pay attention to me after Saturday. I promised him.”

UConn will face Kentucky, a 74-73 winner over Wisconsin in Saturday’s second semifinal, in Monday night’s championship game.

Kevin Ollie is now headed to the national title game in his first season as a head coach. He is trying to lead UConn to its fourth championship, the second for the seniors on this team.

Florida (36-3), the tournament’s top overall seed and the winners of 30 straight games, hadn’t lost since a 65-64 defeat to these same Huskies Dec. 2.

UConn made 63.6 percent of its shots in the second half and 55.8 percent overall. The latter was the highest against the Gators this season.

Ryan Boatright scored 13 points, Shabazz Napier 12 and Niels Giffey 11 for UConn. The fact that the Huskies won despite Napier not having a monster offensive game may have dispelled the notion that they are a one-man team.

“I didn’t want to force anything. I wanted to get everybody else involved. I understood they were keying on me, which happens. I’m a point guard, so I want to share the ball as much as I can,” said Napier, who had six assists, four steals and attempted just six shots from the floor.

UConn becomes just the third team seeded No. 7 or lower to make the title game since the field expanded to 64 teams. Villanova made it as an 8 in 1985 and Butler as an 8 in 2011.

As solid as UConn was on offense, it was perhaps its defense that decided another game. Florida matched its season low in points and had just three assists, another season low, to go along with 11 turnovers.

“We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable. We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass,” Ollie said.

Florida coach Billy Donovan said the difference in his team’s performance from most of the season was his point guard’s ability to penetrate.

“The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” Donovan said. “Every time we needed a big shot or a big play, whether against Arkansas or UCLA, he was in the lane. He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright. He had a hard time getting around Napier, which inevitably made our offense very, very difficult.”

Patric Young led Florida with 19 points.

After a horrible start in which it fell behind 7-0 and 16-4, the Huskies somehow managed to storm back and take and three-point lead at the half.

UConn, which trailed by at least nine points in three of its first four games in the tournament, didn’t seem fazed after falling down by a dozen Saturday night.

“We understood that we came out a little lousy. But it’s a part of the game. We never got negative on anybody, we didn’t point any fingers. We just looked at each other and said ‘We have to step up our game,’ ” Napier said. “I don’t think we were too worried about anything.”

After scoring a measly four points in the game’s first 11 minutes and 12 seconds, the Huskies ran off 11 straight points in a blistering 1:43.

A trio of 3-pointers, including two from Daniels, highlighted the spurt, which pulled the Huskies within one point at 16-15.

Napier’s first points of the evening moments later, coupled with a three-point play from Giffey, gave UConn its first lead of the evening at 21-20.

After its hot start, Florida ended up making just eight of its 23 shots in the first half, and netted just six points over the final 10 minutes of the half.

The Huskies led 25-22 at halftime as Daniels led the charge with 10 points and six rebounds.

UConn then scored the first six points in the second half, going up 31-22 on a Napier 3-pointer. The Huskies had scored 27 of the last 33 points in the game _ against one of the nation’s top defenses.

Although Young was able to have his way inside for much of the second half and the Husky big men continued to rack up fouls, the Gators couldn’t mount a successful charge.

They pulled within three on a pair of free throws by Young with 8:03 to go made it 43-40, but the Huskies scored eight of the game’s next nine points. Terrence Samuel started the spurt with a drive to the basket, Napier followed with a steal and flip to Boatright on the break, then Daniels caught a pair of lobs behind the Florida zone to make it 51-41.

That essentially sealed the Huskies’ win, and their usually steady hands at the free throw line didn’t fail them. UConn went 6-for-6 from the line down the stretch.
UConn is now 7-1 in games at the Final Four, including 5-0 in the state of Texas.

As he walked off the floor, Napier raised one finger toward the UConn fans, indicating he’d like his career to end with one more victory, one more fluke.

“Just simple,” Napier said in explanation, “one more to go.”

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NOTES: Return trip to Texas

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UConn guard Ryan Boatright hoists the NCAA regional trophy as coach Kevin Ollie and teammate Lasan Kromah flank him after Sunday’s game in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

By Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

NEW YORK _ Kevin Ollie swears he always believed his 2013-14 UConn basketball team was capable of making a Final Four. But the Huskies’ head coach is also a big fan of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys.

So when Ollie took his Huskies to visit AT&T Stadium _ the Cowboys’ home field and the site of this year’s Final Four _ when they were in the Dallas area to play SMU in early January, some of the players joked that they weren’t really sure what Ollie’s motivation was to stop by.

“We always kept believing in ourselves that we’d get there. And going there (to visit), it was great,” UConn forward DeAndre Daniels said after the Huskies beat Michigan State Sunday to earn a return trip to Arlington, Texas. “I feel like a lot of guys probably didn’t want to go because Kevin Ollie is Cowboys fan and people thought he wanted to go because of that.

“But he took us there and when we were walking around, taking the whole tour, it was amazing how big the place was and that big-screen TV. We told ourselves it would be crazy to play in here, and now we’re finally here. It’s a dream come true.”

Though the players had a difficult time imagining what a basketball court might look like on a field that was designed for football, they obviously saw it as a goal to make such a discovery.

“It was a good way to motivate yourself and have a vision of what lies ahead and what you can accomplish,” forward Niels Giffey said. “It’s crazy to go back there.”

The trip to AT&T Stadium wasn’t the only time this season when Ollie professed a belief to his team that they could make it this far. He told them and anyone else who was still in Gampel Pavilion after the Huskies’ home finale much the same thing.

After the Huskies beat Rutgers March 5, Ollie took to the P.A. system and told the fans they could have another celebration in Gampel “after we get back from Texas.”

“He definitely showed his confidence in this whole team,” Giffey said. “I think it’s very important that a coach has a certain demand for greatness. And he really demands greatness.”


Surrounded by a sea of friends, family and former UConn players _ including Richard Hamilton, Cliff Robinson, Khalid El-Amin, Taliek Brown and Andre Drummond _ the Huskies one-by-one cut down the net under one of the Garden’s baskets.

When it came time for Ollie to make his way up and take the final piece down, he took his time. The 41-year-old coach paused on nearly each step to cheer, thrust his arms in the air or just smile.

“That was just a great experience. It’s a great time when you can get on that ladder, but I was really taking my time. One step at a time,” Ollie said. “And that’s what you’ve got to do to get up top of the ladder. You can’t skip no steps. And the last two years we didn’t skip no steps. We took one step at a time.”

Ollie was still in high school when it occurred, but the celebration on this particular floor was similar to one that took place by the Huskies in the same spot 26 years to the day earlier.

On March 30, 1988, UConn beat Ohio State 72-67 at the Garden to win the NIT Championship. It was the first major championship for the Huskies and was in many ways the catalyst for the program’s move onto the national scene.

Like Ollie is now, UConn had a head coach in Jim Calhoun who was just finishing his second season at the helm.

Calhoun, who was in attendance Sunday, shared a big hug with Ollie shortly after the game ended.


When Phil Nolan’s dunk gave UConn what appeared to be an unsurmountable lead in the final seconds, UConn Athletic Director Warde Manuel couldn’t help himself.

“I was ecstatic. When that dunk went in, I…I try to sit there calm and I try to be collected, but I just erupted. It was probably the wrong etiquette but I don’t know,” Manuel said.

Given that a year ago the Huskies were banned from the postseason and given some of the other hurdles Ollie has cleared, Manuel was elated for his coach and the program.

“Everything we went through, everything this program has gone through, to have it continue to drive forward and move forward under Kevin, with coach Calhoun around supporting him and supporting me, and the leadership of President (Susan) Herbst and all the things we do as a university and the belief that we have in greatness and pushing forward, this is an unbelievable moment for us in our history,” Manuel said.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Ollie has taken a page out of Calhoun’s book in some ways in the manner he coaches.

“I like what Kevin did. He learned from Jim. His teams play the same way: hard, tough,” Izzo said. “You can tell it’s part of their DNA over there.”


For the second weekend in a row, UConn guard Shabazz Napier had to leave the action in the second half to deal with an injury. Against Villanova last week it was Napier’s shin. On Sunday it was a bloody nose suffered after a collision with Michigan State’s Gary Harris.

“I was trying to go for the steal. He (Harris) wasn’t looking and I kind of tipped it, and he was going to the ball and then he went to go push me away and just so happened to hit me in my face, in my nose. It just started bleeding,” Napier said.

Much like in the Villanova game, Napier relied on the work of UConn trainer James Doran and was quickly back on the floor.

Napier heaped praise on Doran for his abilities, and certainly harbored no ill will toward Harris.

“It’s part of the game. I didn’t think he did it on purpose,” Napier said.


UConn guard Ryan Boatright may have scored a modest 11 points in Sunday’s regional final, but his contributions to the win went much deeper. The junior also had four steals and helped drive Michigan State guards Keith Appling and Travis Trice crazy with his defense.

“I take pride in my defense, picking them up 94 feet, the entire length of the floor. Even if I can’t pick up a steal, just turning them and turning them and getting them uncomfortable so they can’t run offense so smoothly, it helps the team,” Boatright said.

Appling, a senior who entered the game averaging 11.4 points and 4.5 assists per game, had just two points and two assists to go along with four turnovers against the Huskies. Applying was also in foul trouble for much of the game.


In something of a statistical anomaly, the Huskies are the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the field expanded to 64 teams. No. 7 seeds had been 0-7 in regional finals before Sunday.

UConn also broke its own geographical jinx, of sorts. UConn had been 0-5 in “East” regional final games. All four of their previous Final Four trips had come via “West” regional runs.


When teams make surprise runs to the Final Four, it’s sometimes because other upsets in their brackets helped make the road to the semifinals a little easier.

That wasn’t the case for the Huskies this time.

UConn beat three of the top four seeds in its region _ No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 4 Michigan State _ to reach the Final Four.

According to ESPN, only three other teams had done that in the 64- and 68-team field era. LSU did it in 1986, Florida in 2000 and Butler in 2011.

Actually, there are now five in that category because UConn wasn’t the only team to pull off such a feat in this tournament. Kentucky beat No. 1 Wichita State, No. 4 Louisville and No. 2 Michigan.


The Huskies continue to try and beef up their non-conference schedule, given the lack of RPI-power the American Athletic Conference portion of their slate seems to pack. And they’re doing so with one of the beefiest opponents of all.

There may be a Duke-UConn game in the greater New York area as early as next season, several sources said Sunday.

The two schools are in discussions over a game between their basketball programs in a site such as Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn or even the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Huskies have also been in talks with Georgetown officials about a series between the two former Big East rivals, but those discussions are apparently on hold until the Huskies determine if they have a game with the Blue Devils set first.

Among the non-conference games UConn already is scheduled to play in the 2014-15 season are ones at Stanford, at Florida and at home against Texas. UConn will also participate in the Puerto Rico Tip-off against a field that includes Boston College, West Virginia, Dayton, College of Charleston, George Mason, New Mexico and Texas A&M.


Napier scored 25 points Sunday to move past Ray Allen (1,922) and into fourth place on UConn’s all-time scoring list. Napier now has 1,925 points. Napier also broke the school’s record for career free throws. He sank nine on Sunday to give him 506 in his career, five more than the previous all-time leader, Kemba Walker. … Ollie was glad to celebrate his team becoming the first from the American Athletic Conference to make a Final Four, and in the first year of the league, no less. “We’ve got our American flag waving out our window going down to Texas,” Ollie said. … UConn is 6-1 in games played at the Final Four (the best winning percentage in NCAA history among teams who have played as many games), winning two games and the title in 1999, 2004 and 2011. Its lone loss came to Michigan State in 2009. … Keith Appling and Adreian Payne became the first four-year Spartans not to make a Final Four in Izzo’s tenure. … Napier (MVP) was joined on the All-Regional team by teammate DeAndre Daniels, Michigan State’s Payne and Harris, as well as Iowa State’s Dustin Hogue.

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For Huskies, a 5th trip to Final Four

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Shabazz Napier smiles after cutting the net after a regional final against Michigan State Sunday at MSG. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

By Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

NEW YORK _ On a whiteboard inside the UConn basketball team’s locker room at Madison Square Garden, one of the keys listed on the Huskies’ game plan against Michigan State Sunday was underlined multiple times in red.

“Toughest team will win this game.”

That certainly turned out to be true. It just happened that the tougher bunch wasn’t wearing green, as most had expected.

Using its toughness, especially on the defensive end, UConn beat Michigan State 60-54 Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden in the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional Final, earning the school its fifth trip to the Final Four and the seniors on the current team their second.

The Spartans entered the game as the perceived tougher squad, but the Huskies more than held their own.

“We’re physical, too. Don’t get it mixed up,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who is 4-0 in tourney play and is in the Final Four in just his second season at the helm of his alma mater. “We are predators out there. And we’re going to go in and do a great job. We’re going to use our physicality with our muscle, we’re going to use our physicality with our mind.”

The Huskies (30-8) will face Florida _ which has won 30 straight games since the Huskies beat them back on Dec. 2 _ Saturday night in the national semifinals in Arlington, Texas.

To get there, UConn prevailed in a game that featured a myriad of lengthy runs by both teams. UConn took an early 10-point lead, fell behind by nine, rallied to go back up by double digits and hold off one final charge from the Spartans.

As is often the case this season, Shabazz Napier came through in the clutch. Napier scored a game-high 25 points, giving him 93 in the tournament so far.

His jump shot with 1:39 to play in a two-point game gave his team some breathing room, and he sealed the victory with another late 3-pointer.

Napier’s triple with 30.6 seconds to play and his team still nursing a 53-51 lead wasn’t made in the usual fashion, however. He was fouled by Michigan State’s Keith Appling while hoisting a long jumper and sank all three of the ensuing free throws.

“When I shot the ball, he hit my wrist which made me air-ball it. So at the end of the day, I thought it was a great call,” said Napier, who was named the region’s MVP.

Gary Harris led Michigan State (29-9) with 22 points. Adreian Payne added 13, but the 6-foot-10, 250-pound senior and his frontcourt teammates weren’t able to do very much damage in the paint against the Huskies. Michigan State scored just six points in the paint to UConn’s 16, despite the former having a significant size and strength advantage.

“They definitely tried to force me out and to take jump shots,” said Payne, who made three 3-pointers but also missed seven from that range. “It was just, they did a great job in the post of sending backside help. So it was kind of hard to get the ball down low.”

In all, Michigan State took 29 3-pointers and only 17 from inside the arc.

The Huskies didn’t exactly dare the Spartans to shoot all day from the outside and hope they’d miss, but they were determined to keep from being bullied in the middle.

“My coaching staff came up with a great design out there and the defense was amazing,” Ollie said.

Once again, UConn was sharp from the foul line. Napier made all nine of his freebies and the Huskies were 21-of-22 as a team. They’ve hit at least 90 percent of their free throws in three of their four tournament victories.

A Spartan miss followed Napier’s clutch free throws, and Phil Nolan provided the exclamation point for the victory with a breakaway dunk to stretch the lead to seven with 14 seconds to play.

Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander will be making their second trip to the Final Four as players.

Much like their run three years ago with Kemba Walker leading the way to the Final Four and a national crown, these Huskies also created some magic at Madison Square Garden. Some 70 percent of the 19,499 fans in attendance Sunday screamed themselves hoarse in cheering for UConn.

“Yeah, it’s kind of unfair,” Napier said. “We feel the intensity from our crowd. We feel the intensity from the overwhelming sensation when you first walk in here. It’s just a special feeling to continue to create our history and win games here.”

Michigan State missed eight of its first nine shots and sprinkled in four turnovers as the Huskies stormed to a 12-2 lead. UConn made five of its first eight shots from the field, including a breakaway dunk by Ryan Boatright and a 3-pointer by Napier.

“They got off to that great start and we looked like we were walking in quicksand there for a little while,” Izzo said.

But Michigan State stormed back as the Huskies went cold. UConn made only three of its final 21 shots and the Spartans closed the half on a 23-9 run to take a four-point lead at the half.

“Coach told us to keep our composure. They made their run and it was time for us to make ours,” Napier said. “And when coach looks at me a certain way, I just know that I got to be more aggressive.”

The Huskies refocused and, once again, got tough. They used a 23-7 run regain control of the game. Napier’s step-back 3-pointer, a breakaway dunk by Giffey and Boatright’s long 3-pointer to beat the shot clock highlighted the spurt, which was aided by six of Michigan State’s painful 16 turnovers.

One last surge from the Spartans pulled them within a single score of UConn in the final minute, but the predators had more fight left in them as well.

The prey, in this case, saw it coming. Napier apparently would not be denied.

“His will to win. You could just see it. He wasn’t going to let his team lose,” Harris said. “He was the one making the big plays for them at the end, and that’s why he’s such a great player. Because you could just see by playing against him, he’s a winner and he willed his team to victory.”

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Filling shoes, making Final Fours

Shabazz Napier, Kevin Ollie

UConn head coach Kevin Ollie, right, reacts as Shabazz Napier responds to a question during Saturday’s news conferences at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

By Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

NEW YORK _ Tom Izzo had what is sometimes the often unfortunate job of trying to follow in a legendary coach’s footsteps when he took over for Jud Heathcote at Michigan State after the 1994-95 season.

Kevin Ollie did largely the same thing when he took over for Jim Calhoun at UConn almost two years ago.

But Izzo has eschewed the cliché that the coach who follows a legend must flop, and in many ways he’s done an even better job in East Lansing, Mich., than his predecessor. He thinks Ollie has the potential to do the same.

Such transitions only work, Izzo believes, is the departed coach lends his full support.

“I’m sure just like Jud, Jim has done a good thing. He was there to support Kevin in his first game over in Germany,” Izzo said Saturday as he prepared to face Ollie and the Huskies for a berth in the Final Four. “I’ve known Jim for a long time and he wanted Kevin to have the job. He told me that the summer before. I just think it’s how the former guy handles it. We’re going to have pressure on us to try to live up to certain things, but how it’s the guy before handles it.”

Izzo said that Heathcote called him Saturday morning.

“He’s still coaching my team 19 years later. And I accept that and I actually enjoy that,” Izzo said.

Likewise, Calhoun is still closely involved in the UConn program. He’s been traveling with the Huskies during the postseason and was one of the first to congratulate Ollie after Friday night’s win over Iowa State.

When the seventh-seeded Huskies face No. 4 Michigan State Sunday afternoon (2:20 p.m., CBS) at Madison Square Garden trying to earn the program’s fifth trip in the Final Four, Calhoun will again be without shouting distance of the UConn bench. Though, the former coach doesn’t actually yell during games, at least to the Huskies, anymore.

UConn has won three of the five games in its brief history with Michigan State, including last year’s season-opening 66-62 win at Ramstein Air Base in Germany _ Ollie’s first game as UConn’s head coach. But the Spartans won the last time the two teams met on a stage this big, beating the Huskies 82-73 in Detroit as part of the 2009 Final Four.

It was after that game in Germany in which Izzo became one of the first to publicly suggest Ollie deserved a long-term contract with the Huskies. Privately, he also shared some words of wisdom with Ollie.

“The thing that sticks out to me is he just said ‘Be yourself.’ I can’t be coach Calhoun. I can’t build this program from 86 when he arrived. I can’t do that,” said Ollie, who is off to a 3-0 start in coaching NCAA Tournament games. “But I can be Kevin Ollie. I can take some great life lessons I learned from coach and build on them.”

UConn is 4-6 in the Elite Eight round of the tournament, but has won four of its last six. In something of an oddity, UConn is actually 0-5 when playing in the “East” Regional final.

Michigan State is even more of a modern day Blue Blood than UConn, it seems. The Spartans have made the Final Four in six of the last 15 years, so that every four-year player recruited by Izzo has appeared in at least one Final Four.

“If they didn’t like pressure, they picked the wrong school to come to,” said Izzo, whose team held off top-seeded Virginia 61-59 late Friday night. “If they didn’t like the pressure of playing in the Elite Eight or going to Final Four’s or having streaks or having NCAA Tournament bids…Those streaks mean that the players before you lived up to the standards that the players before them had. And that’s part of your obligation when you come here. They don’t like it? Bad choice for them. And yet, I’m trying not to add to that burden by hammering it every day.”

Izzo is 6-1 in the Elite Eight, which gives him the second-best winning percentage in NCAA Tournament history. Only John Wooden, who was a perfect 12-0 at UCLA, had a better mark.

The Huskies are starting to expect similar results from Ollie.

UConn (29-8) has won at least 29 games for the 10th time in school history. Eight of those Husky teams made it to the 30-win plateau.

Ollie was a de facto interim head coach when the Huskies and Spartans met last year. UConn guard Shabazz Napier said, like the Spartans, the Huskies have gained a great deal of experience since then.

The Huskies also have a better idea of what Ollie expects from them in terms of effort on a nightly basis.

“We noticed that in practice from the first day, when coach Ollie had us running around with no basketballs for like 30 minutes,” said Napier, who now has 1,900 career points, 22 shy of Ray Allen and fourth place on UConn’s all-time list. “We just wanted to go out there and give everything we possibly can.”

Michigan State (29-8) doesn’t have the same exact team it did at the start of 2012-13 either, though most of the names remain the same.

“We started a couple freshmen that game and Gary (Harris) was one of them. He had the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights look. I remember he forgot the first three plays we were going to run. So they had a little more experience at the time,” Izzo said. “But his team has changed, too. A couple of those guys like (Tyler) Olander and (Omar) Calhoun were playing a lot more than they are now.”

Michigan State’s Adreian Payne is certainly likely to present matchup problems for the Huskies. The senior goes 6-foot-10, 245 pounds and averages 16.5 points. He went off for 41 points in the Spartans’ NCAA opener against Delaware.

But teammate Branden Dawson is playing nearly as well, becoming just the fifth player since 1990 to lead his team to the Elite Eight while averaging at least 20 points and shooting at least 65 percent from the field. The others in that group are Blake Griffin (Oklahoma, 2009), Sean May (North Carolina, 2005), Charles O’Bannon (UCLA, 1997) and Juwan Howard (Michigan, 1994).

One thing UConn should have going for it is a home court advantage, given how many of its fans attended Friday night’s game and how many more might be able to pick up tickets from departing Virginia and Iowa State fans. But Izzo isn’t overly worried about being in such a predicament.

“We’ve actually played better on the road than we have at home,” Izzo said. “We lost four home games this year, which is un-American and illegal. We actually play pretty well on the road.”

UConn in Regional Finals

1964 Duke L, 101-54

1990 Duke L, 79-78 (OT)

1995 UCLA L, 102-96

1998 North Carolina L, 75-64

1999 Gonzaga W, 67-62

2002 Maryland L, 90-82

2004 Alabama W, 81-71

2006 George Mason L, 86-84 (OT)

2009 Missouri W, 82-75

2011 Arizona W, 65-63

2014 Michigan State ?????

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Shouldn’t be much flack over smack

By Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

NEW YORK _ It was hardly the slap heard ‘round the world.

But the playful, open-hand smack UConn coach Kevin Ollie gave freshman point guard Terrence Samuel after a television interview Friday night quickly spread quickly, as such things often do, via the Internet.

“We were just goofing around. It was no big deal,” Ollie said Saturday as he and his team prepared to face Michigan State in Sunday’s East Regional final. “So we were just goofing around and they play a game, and they were putting bunny ears behind me. It just wasn’t nothing.”

During a live interview with Allie LaForce on TBS after the Huskies’ win over Iowa State in the Sweet 16, a number of UConn players in the background were doing their own versions of photobombing.

As Ollie was ending the chat, Samuel appeared to make the “monocle” sign that players often make after hitting a big shot. Ollie, perhaps seeing that, turned quickly and slapped his hand across Samuel’s face.

Samuel said the exchange was all in good fun.

“He’s just a very emotional guy and was expressing his feelings. I know he didn’t mean to do it like that. It was alright. He just got caught in the moment. He was joking with me,” Samuel said.

A number of the other Huskies exploded in laughter after the incident and were discussing it long after the game.

“I didn’t even see it. I was doing radio,” UConn guard Ryan Boatright said of a postgame interview with WTIC. “They were talking about in the locker room and as soon as we were done with media, it was all over the internet. It was on Vine, Twitter and all kinds of stuff. It was pretty funny.”

UConn center Phil Nolan, who has become something of a photobombing regular in live interviews by his teammates this season, said the exchange may have been part of something different.

“We have this little game we played called ‘Hardee’s’ where we smack each other a couple times,” Nolan said. “I guess coach just felt like getting involved in the game.”

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Another Garden party

Niels Giffey

Niels Giffey exults during the second half in a regional semifinal against Iowa State in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Friday in New York. Connecticut won 81-76. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

By Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

NEW YORK _ The UConn basketball team is winning games at Madison Square Garden in March. There are some traditions conference realignment was unable to ruin.

Playing at what Shabazz Napier termed the Huskies’ “third home,” seventh-seeded UConn beat Iowa State 81-76 Friday night in an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game.

Coach Kevin Ollie likes to use metaphors about his team “planting seeds”. Well, no better place than the Garden.

UConn advances to Sunday’s regional final where it will take on the winner of Friday’s late game between fourth-seeded Michigan State and top-seeded Virginia.

It will be the Huskies’ 11th trip to the Elite Eight and its third in the last six years. It’s also just the second time UConn has advanced this far in the tournament under a coach not named Jim Calhoun.

Ollie, who was UConn’s point guard when it reached this round in 1995, has the Huskies there in his second year as the team’s head coach.

“He’s passed me the baton and I’m just trying to run with it,” Ollie said of Calhoun, with whom he shared a big postgame hug.

DeAndre Daniels led UConn (29-8) with 27 points and 10 rebounds. Napier added 19 points and Ryan Boatright 16.
Dustin Hogue led the Cyclones (28-8) with a career-high 34 points.

Iowa State star Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year, missed 10 of his first 11 shots and finished with seven points. It was one shy of his season-low and just the fourth game all season he failed to reach double figures.

“They had a very good game plan defensively. They had us standing around a little bit,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.

Iowa State trimmed what was once a 17-point UConn lead down to four in the final minutes, but the Huskies held on thanks to their free throw shooting. UConn made 20-of-22 from the line.

With their departure from the Big East, UConn can no longer look forward to playing conference tournament games here as it did for more than 30 years. But the Huskies still plan on making regular trips to MSG, and why not?

In the first NCAA Tournament game at the Garden in 53 years, the Huskies had a great deal of support from the crowd. Despite the extravagant prices some tickets were selling for on the secondary markets, a large portion of the fans were wearing National Flag Blue and white.

“It just felt like a home game,” said Napier, who has scored 68 points in the Huskies’ three tournament games. “When you have that crowd behind you, pushing you, good things happen.”

The good for UConn was avenging a loss to Iowa State two years ago that knocked it out of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.

Napier made his first four shots in the game, all 3-pointers, to put the Huskies on top early.

Daniels caught fire to start the second half, scoring 13 of the Huskies’ first 15 points and helping them stretch their lead out to 17 points.

Iowa State, which was fifth nationally in points per game and heavily reliant on the 3-point shot, was 21-for-43 on 3-pointers in its first two NCAA Tournament games. But the Cyclones struggled from that range Friday, making just 6-of-16.

UConn, by contrast, was on target from the outside early.
UConn hit its first four shots from the floor, including a pair of Napier 3-pointers, to take a quick 10-4 lead. Iowa State made only one of its first five, and seemed to have trouble getting through and over UConn’s shot-blockers.

Napier’s third 3-pointer of the evening and Boatright’s first _ the latter of which came after Daniels blocked Iowa State’s Monte Morris at the other end _ were part of a 7-0 UConn run that put it ahead 19-12.

The Huskies led 36-26 at the half, making seven of their 12 shots from 3-point range. Napier already had scored 12 and Boatright 10 at the break.

Ejim, who is Iowa State’s leading scorer at 18 points per game, was 1-for-8 from the floor and had just three points as the Cyclones scored their second-fewest points in any half this season.

Not only did the Huskies have a decent lead at the break, the game was being played at their pace, not the breakneck speed the Cyclones enjoy.

After Daniels’ highlight reel of fade-away jumpers started the second half, the Huskies went ahead 49-32. But the small lineup the Huskies used for much of the second half, which often didn’t include a center, made it susceptible to Hogue and others on the interior.

A Naz Long 3-pointer pulled Iowa State within four at 67-63 with 2:19 to play. But Niels Giffey responded with a 3-pointer of his own on the Huskies’ next possession and they made 11 of their 12 free throws after that to hold off the Cyclones’ charge.

UConn was up eight points before Morris beat the buzzer with a meaningless deep 3-pointer that provided the final score.

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Men of steel

Shabazz Napier

UConn trainer James Doran helps Shabazz Napier (13) after he was hurt on a play during the second half of an NCAA Tournament game against Villanova in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday. (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

By Neill Ostrout

Journal Inquirer

BUFFALO, N.Y. _ He isn’t Superman. He isn’t Batman. And he isn’t Kemba Walker.

But UConn basketball fans wouldn’t trade Shabazz Napier right now for the Man of Steel, the Caped Crusader or even their home-grown superhero from four years ago.

That’s the kind of roll Napier was on Saturday.

Behind Napier the seventh-seeded Huskies bounced No. 2 Villanova 77-65 late Saturday night in NCAA Tournament play before 19,290 fans at the First Niagara Center.

After missing 12 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, Napier scored 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half, hitting a flurry of long-range shots to frustrate the Wildcats and a circus layup on a bum wheel to finish off them off.

“He goes out there and plays,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “I told you on many occasions he does whatever we need to win. If that’s scoring a scoop shot or being my unpaid coach for 12 minutes, that’s what he does.”

Or, as Villanova coach Jay Wright put it: “Napier was just awesome.”

UConn moves on to Sweet 16 play at Madison Square Garden next week. The Huskies will face the winner of today’s North Carolina-Iowa State on Friday in New York.

The Huskies will make their 17th trip to the Sweet 16, but just their fourth under a coach other than Jim Calhoun. The last time UConn advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament with someone other than Calhoun at the helm was 1976 when Dee Rowe’s Huskies made the regional semifinals.

UConn (28-8) also was helped by Lasan Kromah’s 12 points, as well as 11 each from Ryan Boatright, Terrence Samuel and DeAndre Daniels. Niels Giffey hauled down a career-high 11 rebounds.

Ryan Arcidiacono led Villanova (29-5) with 18 points. James Bell added 14.

On the tail end of their NCAA doubleheader against schools from Philadelphia the Huskies were forced to battle back against Villanova in much the same way they did against St. Joseph’s two days earlier. UConn fell behind by 10 points quickly, but rallied with a 14-0 run with Napier on the bench.

Shabazz Napier

UConn guard Shabazz Napier hits a deep 3-pointer (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

Saturday was the 67th game between the former conference rivals but their first in the NCAA Tournament. It certainly was worth the wait, at least for Husky fans.

Villanova, which relied heavily on the 3-point shot this season, was just 8-of-42 from behind arc in its previous two games. The Wildcats made a season-low four against Seton Hall in their Big East Tournament loss and hit only four again in Thursday’s NCAA opener against Milwaukee.

But they bounced back nicely against the Huskies, making 11 from that distance.

Nova connected on four 3-pointers in the opening four minutes of the second half, taking a 36-35 lead on the second of James Bell’s consecutive triples.

But the Huskies were ready for a shooting contest. Daniels, Kromah and, obviously, Napier, were up to the challenge.

UConn was already up 45-40 when Napier pulled up from some 27 feet away and buried the shot. After a Nova miss, Napier shot from about eight inches closer and swished another one.

“He was just unbelievable that second half,” Ollie said. “You know, 21 points, crucial three’s, dagger three’s. It looked like he was 30 feet out and just making them with the utmost confidence in the world.”

Napier had scored just 10 points in three previous games against the Wildcats but managed to hit that number early in the second half. He made nine of his 13 shots from the floor, including a 4-for-8 effort from long range.

“I wanted to be aggressive. I haven’t been shooting the ball great but I’ve been talking to coach (Jim) Calhoun and he’s been telling me ‘I’m shooting flat. I’m not shooting high enough,’ ” Napier said. “I missed a few but I felt like they all felt good.”

Not long after Napier’s shooting display, he suffered an injury that to some looked as if it might ruin the Huskies’ party. Napier said he was kicked in his right shin by Villanova’s Darrun Hilliard while making a move toward the basket.

“The pain was just excruciating. I couldn’t really put pressure on it,” Napier said.

UConn trainer James Doran tested Napier’s leg and sprayed some “biofreeze” on the injury, which Napier termed “a deep bruise.”

Napier missed just under one minute of game action. Soon after returning he scored on a drive to the basket and flip off the glass that drew shouts of glee from the UConn fans in the building and put the Huskies up 60-51.

Villanova scored the game’s first seven points and at first seemed like it would pull away. And when Napier picked up two fouls in the first eight minutes, the Huskies appeared to be in even hotter water.

But the Huskies flourished without their star, using a smaller lineup that frustrated the Wildcats at both ends of the floor. A Hilliard 3-pointer put Villanova up 10 just after Napier exited, though that would be the last offensive highlight for the Wildcats for a long stretch.

“In a game like that, you have to take advantage of that,” Wright said of Napier’s absence. “Which we didn’t.”

Samuel replaced Napier in the lineup. Although the freshman missed a layup soon after entering, his pressure defense and attacking style of offense helped UConn score 14 straight points.

Kromah had five points in the run, including a 3-pointer that put UConn up 23-20. A Giffey shot in the lane soon after made it 25-20.

Villanova went nearly 10 minutes without scoring and more than 11 minutes without a field goal, missing 10 straight shots. Still, a small, late rally that was punctuated with an Arcidiacono 3-pointer in the final seconds left the Wildcats down just 25-24 at the half.

It was the fewest points Villanova has scored in the first half all season.

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