On the night when the NCAA Tournament finally returned to Madison Square Garden after 53 years, the first game back belonged to a team that has been here all along. Chalk up one for Connecticut, the team that lives in the New York area and knows all about staying power.
Staying, as in the way players chose to stay in Storrs last year, when the team was ruled ineligible for the postseason because of academic violations. They stayed together, stayed strong and stayed hopeful for nights like Friday night, which they controlled almost all the way through their 81-76 East Regional semifinal win over Iowa State. The Huskies stayed alive and advanced to the Elite Eight on Sunday against Michigan State, a 61-59 winner over Virginia.
"If you don't give up in the dark times, it will reverse. The wind will start going in your favor, your direction. And I think that's what's happened now," said coach Kevin Ollie, who began the game by hugging Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, a longtime friend and former NBA teammate, and ended it by hugging Jim Calhoun, his mentor and builder of the Connecticut program to which his players are so loyal.
"They're fighters. When you fight, you don't get on the ropes. You stay in the middle of the ring and you keep fighting and keep throwing punches. I think that's what they're doing. We're 40 minutes away from a goal that they set," Ollie said, referring to the Final Four.
Not that they were looking too far ahead, or behind. Shabazz Napier, the undisputed team leader and star point guard who set the tone by sinking his first four three-point attempts in a 19-point game, said, "I don't want to miss out on what's going on in front of me."
Friday night played out in front of loud Connecticut fans. It certainly brought out the best in DeAndre Daniels, a junior forward from Los Angeles. He got off to a slow start, then scored seven consecutive points to help his team take a 10-point halftime lead. He finished with 27 points and 10 rebounds.
"We were going to keep going to him until he missed," said Ryan Boatright (16 points).
Daniels said, "This postseason, I'm just giving it my all, just for my teammates and UConn and UConn nation."
And his all was only the half of it. UConn (29-8) stifled Iowa State (28-8) with defense that clogged the lane, forcing poor passes and bad shots. It severely contained Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year, who had only seven points and shot 3-for-13. When momentum was being established, for the first 30 minutes or so, UConn also limited top-scoring guard DeAndre Kane, who had 16 points.
UConn withstood a stellar 34-point game by Iowa State's only New Yorker, Dustin Hogue of Yonkers. "It's still special to me, even though it didn't go the way I wanted it to," said the junior forward, who never had played in the Garden.
It did end the way the Huskies had hoped when they decided to stay despite last year's sanctions. Napier said the school stuck with him, so he wanted to return the favor -- despite being so distraught last March that he watched fishing shows rather than basketball. "I grew up with a loyal family," Napier said, "and I continue to have that loyal family with the University of Connecticut."
All the Huskies stayed around for a night like this one, when they all would be celebrating and saluting a performance like the one Daniels had. "He's been hurting sometimes," Ollie said of the big night's big scorer, "but he's still here."