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UConn reaches Final Four with 'home' win over Michigan State at Garden

UConn players react during the game against the

UConn players react during the game against the Michigan State, Sunday, March 30, 2014, in New York. Credit: AP / Julio Cortez

To get his players motivated during a mediocre phase in early January, Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie took them on a tour of AT&T Stadium near Dallas, site of the Final Four. It gave them something to dream about, even if it seemed like a pipe dream at the time.

"He wanted us to understand where we can be if we work hard," star senior point guard Shabazz Napier said. "I guess it worked."

Here's how it worked: The Huskies will be in Dallas on Saturday for the Final Four because of what they did Sunday.

They proved worthy of the moment, handling the pressure and beating Michigan State, 60-54, in the NCAA East Regional final at Madison Square Garden -- a venue for which no one on Connecticut needed a getting-to-know-you field trip.

Connecticut's fans packed the place and filled it with noise, making it their own Garden of dreams. You could say it was fitting that, with the NCAA Tournament returning to this pinnacle for the first time since 1961, a local team won. Or you could say what Napier did after making three huge free throws with 31 seconds left to secure a five-point lead and cap a clutch 25-point effort:

"It's kind of unfair."

Circumstance and luck combined to give the seventh-seeded Huskies what effectively was a home game against a team from the Midwest that almost always thrives in the Elite Eight. (Coach Tom Izzo has been to the Final Four six times in his 19 seasons and until Sunday had never failed to bring a four-year senior class to that ultimate college basketball weekend.)

"We come here and we plant a lot of seeds here. And our fans come here," Napier said. "So we feel real comfortable here. I'm glad we're not too far away from Madison Square Garden, the mecca of basketball."

Certainly, the atmosphere propelled the Huskies to an immediate 12-2 lead. The sound rivaled that of a jet taking off, then grew even louder when former UConn coach Jim Calhoun's image was shown on the video board above the court.

But as nice a story as that is, reality is that it wasn't the nice round ceiling or the electricity or the fans that decided this Elite Eight game. It was the way the Huskies played when it mattered most.

Michigan State (29-9), a popular pick nationally to make the Final Four, used its defense to turn momentum late in the first half and went up by nine early in the second. Then Napier fired up a three-pointer, the Huskies (30-8) tightened up on defense and the tide changed for good.

"It's tough right now, but we didn't do the things necessary for us to win. So it's all on us," said Gary Harris, the one Spartan who played well (22 points).

Connecticut surrounded Michigan State big man Adreian Payne, who was reduced to taking outside shots. Napier totally outplayed counterpart Keith Appling, who scored only two points and finished his career by fouling out on Napier's three-point attempt.

"When I shot the ball, he hit my wrist, which made me airball it," Napier said. "So at the end of the day, I thought it was a great call."

Not long after that, DeAndre Daniels (12 points, eight rebounds), Ryan Boatright (11 points) and the rest of the Huskies were cutting down the net while "New York, New York" poured from the speakers.

Ollie said, "It was just an amazing feeling to do it in Madison Square Garden. For the NCAA not to be here for 50 years and then we come out and we win it, it just puts a great bow on this gift."

The gift was hard-earned, albeit one that sure didn't seem likely during that visit to the Dallas Cowboys' home between losses to Houston and SMU in January.

"It was cool, but I'm a Patriots fan," said Napier, a senior from Roxbury, Mass. "I just thought it was definitely cool because of all the giant things . . . that screen. Everything about that stadium was definitely perfect, except for the team."

It will look even better to Connecticut on Saturday.

New York Sports