By Neill Ostrout
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.