By Neill Ostrout
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.”