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Men's Basketball: UConn takes on Michigan State for spot in Final Four

By Tim Fontenault
On March 29, 2014

  • UConn guard Ryan Boatright shoots over a defender during the Huskies' 81-76 win over Iowa State in the Sweet 16 Friday night at Madison Square Garden. JESS CONDON/The Daily Campus

NEW YORK - Kevin Ollie entered his first game as a head coach in an unusual situation. He had a seven-month contract. Transfers and NBA departures had depleted his team. He was replacing a Hall of Fame coach with almost 900 wins and three national championships. On top of all of that, UConn was ineligible for the postseason.

Yet the Huskies made a statement after just 40 minutes, upsetting a Michigan State team ranked 14th in the nation to start the year, a Sweet 16 team at the end.

"We had so much doubt that got created in the media and was just around the program," Niels Giffey said. "So beating a big-time program that year was really, really important, especially the first game with Coach Ollie."

That win led to 19 more wins during the 2012-13 season, a 20-10 record for a team that had been written off because it could not play in the postseason. Some would argue that what UConn did last year saved the program.

It certainly helped build to Sunday afternoon.

Ollie is now one year into a five-year contract extension. He has a highly-touted transfer sitting on the sidelines, waiting for his chance to play. His star players forwent the NBA Draft to come back.

And his team is one win from the Final Four.

Fitting that near the end of Ollie's second season, it is against Michigan State that the Huskies will play for a trip to the program's fifth national semifinal in Sunday's NCAA Tournament East Regional Final at Madison Square Garden.

"I think one thing I know for sure is that we have experienced so much for the past two years," Shabazz Napier said. "No one left besides the seniors, and everybody that came back understood what it takes to get to the next level.

"With the chemistry we have, with the brotherhood we have, and especially with the coaching staff we got two years under their belt now, I think that we understand how hard it takes."

UConn, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, knocked off Big 12 Tournament champion and No. 3 seed Iowa State 81-76 Friday night in front of a pro-UConn crowd at the Garden. For the Huskies, this is their 11th trip to the Elite Eight, where they are 4-6 overall, 4-2 in their last six trips.

Those four wins all came out of the West Region, and the common belief among UConn fans is that the road to a national title, of which the Huskies have three, goes through the West.

But playing at Madison Square Garden, playing in front of a crowd compiled primarily of UConn fans, the Huskies feel right at home, giving them a confidence that another Final Four is there for the taking.

"It felt like we were in a Gampel game," said DeAndre Daniels, who led UConn with 27 points on 10 of 15 shooting against Iowa State. "That's what it really felt like. We just want to thank all of the people, all our fans, for coming out. We definitely feed a lot off our fans, and that helped us get the win."

It really did seem to be a Gampel game. With 14:23 to go in Friday's win, Daniels nailed a 3-pointer that gave the Huskies a 49-32 lead, forcing Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg to call timeout.

"U! C! O! N! N! UConn! UConn! UConn!" was the response from the crowd.

"I'm sure it's going to be a road game for us," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Sunday will be Izzo's eighth appearance in the Elite Eight, where he has lost just one time in his 19 seasons as coach of the Spartans, the No. 4 seed in the East Region. Only UCLA's John Wooden, who won all 12 of his Elite Eight appearances, has a better winning percentage at this point in the NCAA Tournament.

But there is a lot at stake for Izzo's seniors, forward Adreian Payne and guard Keith Appling. Since Izzo became coach in 1995, every Michigan State player who stayed through his or her senior year has made at least one Final Four, and they are feeling the pressure of that accomplishment on their shoulders.

"It's there every day, especially every game," said Payne, who finished with 16 points and two blocks in the Spartans' 61-59 win over No. 1 Virginia Friday. "Every night, I pray about it every night. So it's always on my mind, and for me to be able to have a chance, to be this close, it's exciting."

For UConn's seniors - Napier, Giffey and Tyler Olander - a win Sunday puts them in their second Final Four with a chance to become the first UConn senior class ever to win two national championships.

After the hardships of the past two seasons - a broken team in 2012 and the postseason ban of 2013 - for the Huskies to be in this situation, Giffey describes the moment as "unreal."

"It's really rewarding," Giffey said. "Just the way everybody stayed together through all the downs. We had a tough time last year with all the negative stuff coming in and all the negative feedback we got. It's just great to see that nobody really bought into that and we all bounced back from it even stronger."

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