NEW YORK – Shabazz Napier owed UConn.
He could have transferred when academic sanctions barred the Huskies from the NCAA tournament his junior season. But the guard wanted to pay back the school for the joy of a national title his freshman year, for his struggles as a sophomore.
Napier sure did that Sunday, carrying UConn back to the Final Four in front of thousands of roaring Huskies fans at Madison Square Garden. He scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half in a 60-54 upset of fourth-seeded Michigan State.
The East Regional’s most outstanding player hit three huge free throws with 30.6 seconds left, making clutch shot after clutch shot just as Kemba Walker did when Napier was a freshman. The Huskies (30-8) 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 Spartans’ seniors become the first four-year players recruited by Tom Izzo to fail to make a Final Four.
“As the game got closer and closer to ending, it was on my mind a lot, every huddle,” said big man Adreian Payne, who had 13 points and nine rebounds but was repeatedly pushed to the perimeter by UConn’s defenders.
The undersized Huskies matched Michigan State’s physical play box-out for box-out, holding the Spartans (29-9) to just six offensive rebounds and six points in the paint.
“We’re physical, too,” said second-year coach Kevin Ollie, who is 4-0 in the NCAA tournament after replacing mentor Jim Calhoun. “Don’t get it mixed up. We are predators out there.”
UConn dared Michigan State to shoot 3-pointers, and the Spartans nearly made enough, going 11 for 29 from behind the arc. Harris was 4 for 9 on 3s, but his teammates were a combined 10 for 32 from the floor.
Trailing 51-49 with more than 2 minutes left, Michigan State had a chance to tie or take the lead. Payne threw 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 3-point attempt. Napier extended the lead to 56-51, and after Travis Trice missed a 3, Phillip Nolan slipped free for a dunk that clinched the victory.
“We got what we deserved today,” 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.”