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Men's Basketball: Ever-resilient UConn beats Michigan State, advances to fifth Final Four

By Tim Fontenault
On March 30, 2014

  • UConn guard Ryan Boatright celebrates after Phil Nolan's dunk to put the Huskies up 58-51 against Michigan State in the East Regional Final. The Huskies beat the Spartans 60-54 to advance to their fifth Final Four. JESS CONDON/The Daily Campus

NEW YORK - His teammates swarmed together at midcourt. The fans, a good 15,000 of them glad in blue, erupted into a scream that would have taken down the roof at Gampel Pavilion.

And all Niels Giffey could do was separate himself, throw up his arms and let out a scream.

"We worked really hard over the last two years," Giffey said, fighting back tears after UConn punched its ticket to the Final Four with a 60-54 win over Michigan State. "We worked hard even when we didn't need to work at all right, after last season and throughout the whole last season, so that kind of gives you an idea of what this whole group is about."

This latest trip to the Final Four, UConn's fifth since 1999 and its third in six years, comes on the back of a postseason ban due to poor academic scores near the end of Jim Calhoun's time as coach.

The sanctions could have set the program back several years. Entering the 2012-13 season, Calhoun retired, Kevin Ollie was given a seven-month interim contract and five players transferred or declared for the NBA.

That season, one that laid the groundwork for this Final Four run, started with a 66-62 win over the Spartans, and the Huskies have not looked back.

"I had faith in my players," Ollie said, now near the end of the first year of a five-year contract extension. "I had a great coaching staff, two of my coaches coached me and got head coach experience, and my belief in God."

After Friday's Gampel-like crowd willed UConn to an 81-76 win over Iowa State, an even bigger Connecticut contingency showed up Sunday. Multiple trains made their way from Union Station in New Haven to Grand Central in Manhattan with the UConn Huskies chant going all the way.

That energy carried into the Garden, and it sparked UConn's early 12-2 lead.

"It's kind of unfair," Napier said of playing at Madison Square Garden. "We come here and we plant a lot of seeds here. And our fans come here and as we always say, it's like a third home."

The excitement of UConn's quick start was short-lived, however, as Michigan State answered with a 30-11 run that carried into the second half.

Down 32-23, the Huskies looked like they were about to let a dream slip through their fingers. But UConn has been in worse situations before.

After all, this is a team that had to play every game last season knowing that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

"That's why we're here right now," said Lasan Kromah, who is playing in his only season with UConn - and his only NCAA Tournament - after three years at George Washington.

After an Adreian Payne jumper put the Spartans up nine, the Huskies desperately needed a bucket that would end the run.

Cue Shabazz Napier being a hero once again.

Napier, who finished with 25 points, got the ball out of the timeout and pulled up, hitting a 3-pointer to cut the lead to six.

UConn scored the next nine points after that - four of them from Napier on the foul line - to take a 35-32 lead with 11:49 to go.

"Coach told us to keep our composure," Napier said. "They made their run and it was time for us to make ours. And when Coach looks at me in a certain way, I just know I got to be more aggressive, I've got to open shots when my teammates got me the ball, and we just kept running."

It was a back-and-forth game from thereon out. The two teams got caught in trench warfare for the final 10 minutes, a defensive battle that took its toll on everyone, especially Payne, who limped his way to the Spartans' locker room after the game, and Napier, who had to come out at one point because of a bloody nose.

"(UConn athletic trainer James Doran) felt like I didn't need to have a little tube in my nose," Napier said, "and I didn't want the tube in my nose either. So I just went back out there."

Payne cut UConn's lead to two from the foul line with 57 seconds left, but on the next possession, Keith Appling hit Napier as he went up for a three. It was Appling's fifth foul and Napier's chance to pad the lead.

Napier hit all three to put UConn up five with 30 seconds to play, and after Travis Trice missed a 3-pointer on the other end, Phil Nolan put a bow on the game with a two-handed dunk at the other end.

"It was a heart of a champion," Ollie said. "It was a heart of a lion, and I love these guys."

The Final Four is not unfamiliar territory for UConn, especially for Napier, Giffey and Tyler Olander, who are now in their second.

But even more familiar, for this year's Huskies at least, is their opponent in the national semifinals, a team that has won 30 games in a row since Napier clipped them with a buzzer beater on Dec. 2.

UConn and Florida's seasons have taken two separate paths since they met that night at Gampel Pavilion. For one, two early losses in a new conference seemed enough to put their season to the sword early, though it made them stronger. For the other, 30 straight victories and a full, healthy team has made it hard to look away while they play the best basketball in the country.

But the rematch is not until Saturday, and for Giffey, right now is about living in the moment, and the joyous German does not want to escape that moment just yet.

"It is a little early to think about Florida," Giffey said. "I am just trying to enjoy this win and take it all in. I am a senior so I am not looking forward to the next game, but I am looking forward to the experience.

"I am living a dream that I was trying to accomplish when I first came to the United States. It is just unbelievable right now." 

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