For the first time in 53 years the NCAA Tournament returned to The World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden. There was no team more excited about this than Connecticut, who defeated Michigan State 60-54 on Sunday afternoon to punch their ticket to the Final Four.
Connecticut has a history in Madison Square Garden, winning 60 games there in their program’s existence. They also have had some experiences where playing at Madison Square Garden catapulted them to great heights, most recently with Kemba Walker running the show in 2011.
The Huskies were limping into the Big East Tournament, squarely on the bubble and without many expectations. They were able to pull off the unthinkable, winning five games in five days to take home the Big East Championship, earning an automatic bid to the Big Dance. They would ride that momentum throughout the NCAA Tournament, eventually taking home the national championship.
Sunday, Connecticut had a big time home-court advantage and they made the most of it. Playing near their home of Storrs, Conn., the crowd was raucous in their favor throughout the afternoon. You could hear UCONN and Husky chants raining down on the court all afternoon and the players were feeding off of it.
One of those players was Shabazz Napier, who is taking over the role that Walker played three years earlier when Napier was a freshman. Napier came up huge against Michigan State, scoring 25 points, grabbing six rebounds and handing out four assists as he did everything he could to will his team to victory, showing outstanding leadership qualities in the process. He was clutch at the foul line as well, making all nine of his free throw attempts and overcoming a bloody nose suffered in the second half.
Napier’s running mate in the backcourt, Ryan Boatright, came through when needed as well, getting four steals and knocking down all four of his free throw attempts.
On the other hand, guard play let down the Spartans. The defensive pressure put on Michigan State by Connecticut, spearheaded by Napier and Boatright, caused the Spartans to be out of sync. They were never able to get into their offense, as Keith Appling and Travis Trice both struggled mightily. The two combined to shoot 1-for-7 from the field, handing out only four assists and turning the ball over five times.
The only Michigan State player that was able to get it going offensively throughout the night was Gary Harris, who scored a team-high 22 points. Denzel Valentine was also able to add some outside shooting, connecting on 3-for-4 from beyond the arc.
Connecticut also ended an improbable streak Tom Izzo had going at Michigan State, as he had previously taken every graduating senior class to the Final Four at least once in his 19 years at East Lansing. It is a disappointing end to the careers of Adreian Payne and Appling.
With the victory the Huskies will be moving on to the Final Four in Texas to take on Florida. As long as they have Napier in their backcourt, they have a chance to knock off the overall No. 1 seeded Gators and reach the national championship game.