March 30, 2014

UConn pulls stunner to earn Final Four trip

The Huskies upset Michigan State behind Shabazz Napier’s 25 points and four assists.

Shabazz Napier doesn’t quit. Connecticut’s All-America point guard kept coming Sunday, and Michigan State had no answer.

The seventh-seeded Huskies are headed to the NCAA Final Four in Arlington after holding off the fourth-seeded Spartans 60-54 in front of a sold-out crowd of 19,499 at Madison Square Garden.

The decidedly Huskie-leaning crowd roared each time Napier came up with another big-time shot that sent UConn to its fifth Final Four starting in 1999 and first under second-year coach Kevin Ollie.

The Huskies (30-8) play top-seeded Florida in the national semifinals Saturday. The Gators (36-2) lost at UConn 65-64 on Dec. 2.

Napier, along with a few teammates, stayed at UConn despite the program’s NCAA postseason ban last year for poor academic performance. The Huskies won the NCAA title in 2011 under former coach Jim Calhoun.

On Sunday, Napier showed off his All-America credentials with a game-high 25 points and four assists. He made 4 of 9 3-point attempts and helped the Huskies overcome a nine-point deficit early in the second half.

Napier scored seven points during a 12-0 run that turned a 32-23 deficit into a 35-32 lead with under 11 minutes remaining. Michigan State had started the second half with an 8-2 run.

“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 I got to be more aggressive. ... Guys were just feeling the intensity that the fans were bringing, and we just were fortunate enough to get the W.”

UConn never trailed again and built a 10-point lead when Ryan Boatright connected on a 3-pointer with 6:27 remaining.

Michigan State showed some fight, however, and pulled to within 51-49 with 2:38 remaining after 3-pointers from Denzel Valentine and Gary Harris and a layup from Keith Appling. Harris had 22 points to lead the Spartans.

Appling had a tough day trying to guard Napier, who stopped and pulled up for a quick mid-range jumper in Appling’s face to push the lead back to 53-49 with 1:39 left. Two free throws by MSU’s Adreian Payne cut the Spartans’ deficit back to two, 53-51, with 58 seconds to go.

Appling’s frustration showed after fouling out on Napier’s 3-point attempt with 31 seconds remaining. Napier made all three free throws to give UConn a five-point lead. The Huskies were sizzling from the line, making 21 of 22, including Napier’s 9 for 9.

Three-point attempts from Travis Trice and Payne were off and Phillip Nolan’s dunk on a fast break sealed the win with 15 seconds remaining.

“I think Kevin’s team played so hard, and they got off to that great start, and we looked like we were walking in quicksand there for a little while,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said. “This team battled and did everything they could do, and unfortunately we did not bring our ‘A’ game today, and we got what we deserved.”

UConn led 12-2 after opening the game making 5 of 8 shots. MSU settled down after starting 1 for 9 from the field through the first 7:15. The Spartans finished the half making 8 of 15 shots, including 5 of 7 first-half shooting from Harris.

Harris’ teammates were 4 of 17 from the field in the first half, but Payne’s consecutive 3s were part of an 8-2 run that cut UConn’s lead to 14-11. Valentine’s 3 from the corner after a loose-ball tussle at the other end pulled MSU to within 16-14. Napier’s layup and a long 3 pushed UConn’s lead to 21-16 with 5:22 remaining.

Michigan State trailed most of the first half. Harris made consecutive 3s to give the Spartans their first lead, 22-21, with 3:27 left in the half. Valentine’s 3 with 18 seconds left gave MSU a 25-21 lead at halftime.

“We wanted to throw the first punch and I think we did that,” Ollie said. “At the end of the first half we had a lull, and then in the second half we turned it on.”

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