NEW YORK (AP) — A veteran guard carried UConn to the Final Four.
Shabazz Napier watched Kemba Walker do it three years ago. It was his turn Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Napier scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half of 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.
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. They rode the home-court advantage of the thousands of UConn fans who made the short trip.
“It’s kind of unfair,” Napier said with a grin.
He could have transferred when academic sanctions barred the Huskies from the NCAA tournament his junior season. But Napier wanted to pay back the school for the joy of that national title his freshman year, for his struggles as a sophomore.
Did he ever.
Second-year coach Kevin Ollie is now 4-0 in the NCAA tournament at his alma mater after replacing mentor Jim Calhoun. Afterward, Ollie told Calhoun: “Thank you for believing in me.”
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 wanted to throw the first punch, and I think we did that,” Ollie said.
UConn dared Michigan State to shoot 3-pointers, and the Spartans nearly made enough, going 11 for 29 from behind the arc. Gary Harris was 4 for 9 on 3s for 22 points, but his teammates were a combined 10 for 32 from the floor.
Michigan State’s seniors become the first four-year players recruited by Tom Izzo to fail to make a Final Four.
Trailing 51-49 with more than two minutes left, the Spartans had a chance to tie or take the lead. Senior Adreian Payne threw the ball away, and Napier drilled a jumper on the other end.
After Payne’s free throws cut the deficit back to two, Keith Appling was whistled for a foul – the fifth on Michigan State’s other senior starter – 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.
“He’s a winner, and he willed his team to victory,” Harris said of Napier.
Ryan Boatright made four steals as Michigan State committed 16 turnovers. Some were caused by UConn’s quickness, others by poor decisions by the Spartans. Izzo thought his team, a popular pick to win it all after finally getting healthy in March, looked tired.
“We had 16 of the most out-of-body turnovers known to mankind, to be honest,” Izzo said.
DeAndre Daniels 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.
The 6-foot-10, 245-pound Payne, repeatedly forced out of the paint by the Huskies’ defenders, 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’ve got to be more aggressive,” said Napier, who passed Ray Allen for fourth on the Huskies’ career scoring list with 1,925 points.
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 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down put UConn up 49-39 with less than seven minutes left.
The Huskies won their third national title in 2011, but they were ineligible for last year’s tournament because of previous low scores on the NCAA’s academic progress measure.
They face Florida in the national semifinals Saturday, and they’ll be confident they can beat the No. 1 overall seed. The Gators have won 30 straight, but their last loss was to UConn, 65-64 on Dec. 2 on Napier’s buzzer-beating jumper.
After the Huskies were routed 81-48 by Louisville in the regular-season finale, Ollie showed his players video of that victory to remind them of what happens when they play frenetic defense.
“That tape is crazy,” Boatright said. “We were everywhere. We were helping each other. We were closing out right, and we were rebounding the basketball.”
Just like they played Sunday.