NEW YORK - Senior guard Shabazz Napier (Roxbury, Mass.) scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half to lead the University of Connecticut men's basketball team to a 60-54 victory over Michigan State in the East Region final of the NCAA Championship on Sunday before a crowd of 19,449 at Madison Square Garden.
The Huskies now advance to the NCAA Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. UConn will play Florida in the national semifinals on Saturday at 6:09 p.m. on CBS and the UConn IMG Sports Radio Network. The winner of that game plays in the national championship game on Monday, April 7. Florida has won 30-straight games entering the NCAA Final four, but their last loss was to UConn, 65-64 on Dec. 2.
After the Huskies were easily beat 81-48 by Louisville in the regular-season finale, UConn head coach Ollie showed his players video of that victory to remind them of what happens when they play frenetic defense.
"We're going to be well prepared, because I know about these guys' heart," Ollie said. "That's what got us through: It was a heart of a champion, heart of a lion." Connecticut was the No. 7 seed in the East Region while Michigan State was the No. 4.
Along the way to the Final Four, UConn also beat No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 3 seed Iowa State.
The Huskies are now 30-8 on the season while Michigan State finishes 29-9. UConn will be playing in its fifth NCAA Final Four and its third in the past six years. UConn won the NCAA Championship in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
Napier, the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player, hit three huge free throws with 37.6 seconds left, making clutch shot after clutch shot just as Kemba Walker did when Napier was a freshman. The Huskies rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to become the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
"His will to win - you could just see it," said Gary Harris, who led Michigan State with 22 points. "He wasn't going to let his team lose."
The undersized Huskies matched Michigan State's physical play box-out for box-out, holding the Spartans to just six offensive rebounds and six points in the paint. "We're physical, too," said Ollie. "Don't get it mixed up. We are predators out there."
UConn dared Michigan State to shoot three-pointers, and the Spartans nearly made enough, going 11 for 29 from behind the arc. Harris was four for nine on threes, but his teammates were a combined 10 for 32 from the floor.
Trailing 51-49 with more than two minutes left, Michigan State had a chance to tie or take the lead. Adreian Payne fumbled the ball away, and Napier drilled a jumper on the other end.
After Payne's free throws pulled the Spartans back within two, Keith Appling was whistled for a foul - his fifth- for contact with Napier on a three-point attempt.
Napier extended the lead to 56-51, and after Travis Trice missed a three, sophomore forward Phillip Nolan (Milwaukee, Wisc.) slipped free for a dunk that clinched the victory.
"We got what we deserved today," MSU head coach Tom Izzo said. "I tried to tell these guys that, when you get to the tournament, you got to bring it every second. And today Connecticut did, and we just kind of weren't as good as we have been."
Junior guard Ryan Boatright (Aurora, Ill.) made four steals as Michigan State committed 16 turnovers. Some were caused by UConn's quickness, others by what Izzo called poor decisions by the Spartans.
Junior forward DeAndre Daniels (Los Angeles, Calif.) shut down Branden Dawson, who scored 24 points in Michigan State's Sweet 16 win over top-seeded Virginia. Dawson attempted just three field goals, making one, to finish with five points.
Payne hit two long jumpers to put Michigan State up 32-23 less than four minutes into the second half, but Napier started driving, getting the bigger Appling in foul trouble and UConn back in the game.
"When Coach looks at me a certain way, I just know I got to be more aggressive," Napier said.
After hitting four straight free throws to tie the score at 32 with 12:38 left, Napier was struck in the face by Harris - the UConn guard was called for a foul on the play - and left the court with his nose gushing blood. He was back less than a minute later when Daniels completed a three-point play to give the Huskies the lead for good.
Boatright's contested three-pointer with the shot clock winding down put UConn up 49-39 with less than seven minutes left.
KENTUCKY NOTES FROM THE GAME:
Team Records, Notes
- Kentucky improves to 28-10 overall, while Michigan ends the year at 28-9.
- Kentucky now leads the all-time series 5-2 and 2-1 in NCAA Tournament action.
- The Wildcats lead the nation with a 115-46 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament.
- Kentucky improves to a 5-1 all-time in NCAA Tournament games played in the city of Indianapolis.
- UK is now 17-2 in NCAA Tournament games under John Calipari.
- With today's win, Kentucky has advanced to its 16th Final Four.
- Kentucky has advanced to a Final Four three times under the direction of Calipari.
- UK has amassed 17 tournament victories under Calipari which is the most of any school since 2010. Florida, Kansas and Louisville are next with 11 each.
- Kentucky has defeated three-straight top-10 teams en route to the Final Four. All three teams comprised a portion of the 2013 Final Four.
- Kentucky's starting lineup consisted of five freshmen in Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Julius Randle and James Young. That lineup improves to 12-4 on the season.
- Alex Poythress was the first sub off the bench for UK. It was his team-leading 22nd time being the first called upon.
- Young hit a 3-pointer at the 7:12 mark of the first half to extend UK's 3-point streak to 897 consecutive games. It is the second-longest streak in the country.
- John Calipari coached teams are now 128-38 in the months of March and April.
- Calipari is 42-13 all-time as a coach in the NCAA Tournament.
First Half Facts
- Michigan earned an early seven-point lead at 9-2, but a Young drive and finish cut the deficit into the opening media break.
- Marcus Lee had dunks on three of four possessions to cut Michigan's eight-point advantage to just two at 14-12, resulting in a 6-0 run by the Cats.
- After UK cut the deficit to one, the Wolverines used another spurt to recapture a game-high 10-point lead at 32-22 with a little more than five minutes to play.
- An 8-0 run by the Wildcats over a 2:05 cut the lead to 32-30 in favor of Michigan.
- A 15-5 run to end the second half enabled the Wildcats to come back and knot the score at 37-37 into the break.
- Today's contest marked the first tie score of the season for Kentucky. UK is now 1-0 on the year when the score is tied at the half.
Second Half Facts
- Kentucky took its first lead of the game on a put-back dunk by Randle to make the score 39-37 with 18:47 on the clock.
- After the Wolverines answered with a jumper, UK went on a 6-0 run to take a 45-39 lead with 17:18 to go.
- Michigan climbed back into things and tied the score at 47, but Young answered with a 3-pointer on the following UK possession to retake the lead.
- The designated home team retook its first half advantage back with a 53-51 score and 12:24 remaining.
- An 11-0 run over a 4:22 span gave UK its largest lead of the game at 62-55 with 6:24 remaining.
- Michigan tied the game on a put-back lay-in at 72-72 with 26 seconds remaining.
- Aaron Harrison knocked down his fourth 3-pointer of the game with just under four seconds remaining and a desperation half-court shot by the Wolverines was wide to make the final margin.
- Aaron Harrison hit his second-consecutive game-winning 3-pointer and finished the game with 12 points all coming from a 3-point shot.
- Has made at least one 3-pointer in career-long 10-straight contests.
- Scored in double-figures in every postseason contest this season.
- Was named to the Regional Tournament team.
- Andrew Harrison registered eight points while dishing out a game-high six assists.
- Has five or more assists in six of UK's last eight games.
- Marcus Lee posted 10 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench.
- Scored 10 first half points on four dunks and a driving runner. It's the most first half points of his career. He had eight first half points in the season-opener vs. UNC Asheville.
- Tallied a career-high eight rebounds.
- Was named to the All-Region Tournament team.
- Julius Randle logged his nation-leading 24th double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
- Has registered 13 double-doubles in his last 15 games.
- Is the second freshman in school history and the sixth player overall to amass 400 or more rebounds in a single season.
- Moved into sole possession of second place on the NCAA single-season freshman double-double list with his double-double today moving past UCLA's Kevin Love who had 23.
- Was named the most valuable performer of the Midwest Regional.
- James Young finished with 13 points and added four rebounds.
- Has 27 double-figure scoring efforts.
- Logged at least one made 3-pointer in all but five contests this season.