UConn on to the Final Four. Florida on deck.
MADISON SQUARE GARDEN: As he made his way up the steps of the ladder to put the finishing touches on getting down the net that symbolized winning the East Regional of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, UConn head coach Kevin Ollie didn’t miss a chance to define the moment.
“I took my time going up those steps,” Ollie said, “because that’s what we have had to do all season long. Go up one step at time.”
The head coach has become a master of using planted seeds and careful steps along the way this season and as a result, his team is one of four teams left and on their way to Texas for the Final Four.
A year removed from not being eligible to play at this time of the year, the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team proved once again that it isn’t always the size of the dog in the fight but the fight in the dog by beating a tough as nails Michigan State team by a score of 60-54.
Shabazz Napier (you thought it would be someone else?) led a second half comeback by scoring 17 of his game-high 25 points, while backcourt mate Ryan Boatright set the defensive tone in the second half after the inside strong Spartans relied on an outside three-point shooting game in the first half to lead by four at the half.
It was the senior captain who has had his share of big moments this year, one of them against the team they face next Saturday in No. 1 Florida, who ignited a second half comeback just when it looked as if the game, tournament and season were slipping away.
“Sometimes coach just looks at me in a certain way and I know it’s time to go,” Napier said. “We just needed to keep our composure and we did.”
The Garden (or Gampel South as it turned out on Sunday) proved to be a perfect backdrop for a return to the grand stage for a team that truly missed being eligible a year ago for any post season action.
19,499 packed the “World’s Greatest Arena” with 60 percent plus backing the team from a couple hours up north from NYC and the UConn players ate it up.
“We love playing at the Garden,” Napier said. “It’s like our third home. What better place to come to play than at the Mecca of Basketball.”
Think back not that long ago, notably to the Huskies 81-48 loss to American Athletic Conference foe Louisville and you may have thought there was no way UConn could get anywhere near a Final Four berth, but the second year head coach did something to wake his team up.
“Coach showed us the tape from the Florida game after we got beat by Louisville,” Napier said. “He reminded us that we could beat the number one team in the country when we play our game. We already had.”
“It was a very low point for (after the Louisville game) us,” Ollie said. “But this game is about how mentally tough you can be when it counts.”
On Sunday, the Huskies were diamond tough in the second half, especially from the free throw line as they nailed 18 of 18 freebies.
It was a classic game of runs, it looked like the Huskies were running away when they jumped out to a 12-2 lead four minutes in, but the Spartans roared back but not the way one have thought they would have.
Any Tom Izzo team worth their salt relies on a tough, physical, punch you in the nose inside game but it was the long ball that got them all the way back and gave them a 25-21 lead at the half.
Gary Harris (team-high 22) had a pair, as did Adreian Payne and Denzel Valentine as Michigan State outscored a stagnant Husky team by a 23-9 margin to go up at the break.
Payne, who is usually just that on the inside, was being beaten on pretty good down low by both Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah so he took his game outside.
“We knew we were going to face some giants,” Ollie said. “We didn’t wait for the giants, we went after them.”
Michigan State scored just six points in the pain,t but by shooting the lights out from three-point land, more than made up for the lack of production inside.
The mental toughness that Ollie talks about with his team came about in the second half after the Spartans started with a 7-2 run that led the coach to call a time out and give his senior leader ‘the look’.
Off the time out, Napier calmly drained the three, igniting a 17-2 run that gave the Huskies the lead at 40-34 and sent the home crowd into a highly charged frenzy.
During that stretch, UConn nailed 11 straight from the line, a true testament to the mental toughness demanded from their head coach.
The lead would grow to double digits at 49-39 with 7:28 left but a pair of three pointers brought Michigan State back to within striking distance and this one had the feeling of ‘last run wins’.
None of the comeback would have been possible if not for the tone set by Boatright on the defensive side of the ball.
“It’s my job to defend for 94 feet,” Boatright said. “I may not get a steal every time but if I slow them down, it take them longer to get into their offense. I try and make them uncomfortable”
It worked and while the Spartans got back to within two at 51-49, a clear-out jumper by Napier, who else, kept UConn ahead.
When the senior was fouled behind the arc with under a minute left and nailed all three free throws, the reservations where being made for the trip to Texas with a chance to play in the Championship Game just six days away.
A gutty win for a team that has found their identity at just the right time.
Two wins from the final step that Ollie wants to see his team take.