It seemed like everyone in Madison Square Garden on Sunday was waiting for the moment when Shabazz Napier would take over. Connecticut's senior All-America guard was happy to oblige. Napier was all over the floor against Michigan State in the East Regional final. He was forcing turnovers, getting his teammates involved, creating off the dribble and drawing fouls. Just when Connecticut needed him most, he delivered, helping the seventh-seeded Huskies pull away from No. 4 Michigan State, 60-54, to move into the Final Four.
Napier, who has been spectacular throughout the tournament, scored 25 points, grabbed six rebounds and added four assists. He hit a jumper with 1:45 to play to put the Huskies up by four, and with the lead back down to two, he drew a foul on a three-point attempt with 30.6 seconds left, then drained all three free throws for a 56-51 lead. The comparisons to Kemba Walker maybe aren't all together fair, but they're certainly not going to stop at this point, especially with Napier's heroics of late.
The last time UConn and Michigan State played, it was at an air base in Germany to tip off last season. The Huskies won that game, the first of Kevin Ollie's career as their head coach. Though UConn had to sit out the 2013 NCAA tournament because of a low Academic Progress Report, Ollie has quickly gotten his alma mater back to the Final Four, a spot the Huskies last visited in 2011. That year, Ollie was in his first season as an assistant after concluding a long NBA career, Napier was a key reserve and Walker was the superstar who led the Huskies on an unexpected run to the national championship. This year, Ollie is in his second season after replacing Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun as the head coach and Napier, doing his best Walker impersonation, has them two wins from another title.
MSG provided the springboard to UConn's last title, as Walker carried the Huskies to the Big East title before their national title run, which was wrapped up in Houston. This time, the Garden provided the perfect backdrop for the two storied programs to vie for a trip to the Dallas area next weekend.
It felt like a de facto home game for the Huskies, and that energy was evident as UConn jumped out to a 12-2 lead, going 5-of-8 from the floor. The Huskies were forcing turnovers, grabbing rebounds and just seemed a step faster than Michigan State early. MSU matched UConn’s defensive intensity after that initial scoring outburst, and the Huskies missed eight straight shots at one point midway through the first half.
The Spartans clawed back in the first half, and after back-to-back threes by Gary Harris (8-of-14, 22 points), they had a 22-21 lead with 3:33 left in the first half. Michigan State closed the half on a 9-0 run to take a four-point lead at the break. The Spartans started the second half continuing their barrage of jump shots and eventually went up by nine at 32-23.
That’s when UConn clamped down defensively. Michigan State went almost seven minutes without a filed goal and wasn’t valuing the basketball. The typically poised Spartans, who averaged 12 turnovers per game, gave it away 16 times against the Huskies. Adreian Payne (13 points, 4-of-14, 3-of-10 from three) settled for far too many jump shots, Keith Appling was a non-factor and Branden Dawson couldn't replicate his recent success, scoring just five points after going for 26 against Harvard and 24 against Virginia in his two previous games.
It's usually nice to be Tom Izzo late in the season. His guys are able to make adjustments on the fly, he doesn’t have to over-coach and even when they get in a hole or struggle to score, they typically stay calm. With MSU down 49-39, Denzel Valentine and Harris each hit a three to cut the Spartans' deficit back to four with 5:05 remaining. The lead got all the way down to two after a pair of free throws by Payne with 57.6 seconds left. Against another team that didn't have Shabazz Napier, the Spartans could have had a chance.