In just second season, Kevin Ollie cuts down East Regional net after his UConn team defeats Michigan State 60-54 at Madison Square Garden, advancing to program's third Final Four since 2009. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)
Their nickname is the Huskies, but given what the University of Connecticut men's basketball program has endured in recent years, it may as well be changed to the Phoenix.
Such a meteoric ascent could not be more evident than at Madison Square Garden this afternoon, where before a crowd of 19,499 whose majority supported the team that Jim Calhoun turned from a regional nobody to a national power, UConn (30-8) emerged from the ashes of the substandard APR score that precluded them from participating in last year's NCAA Tournament with an emphatic 60-54 victory over longtime March kingpins Michigan State (29-9) to reach the program's fifth Final Four, and third in the last six seasons.
"It's kind of unfair," point guard Shabazz Napier said after his latest masterpiece, a 25-point, 6-rebound effort that furthered the comparisons between the senior and his predecessor, Kemba Walker, who led the Huskies to a national championship in 2011. "As we always say, it's like our third home."
UConn fed off their massive crowd presence early and often, jumping out of the gates with a 12-2 run in which DeAndre Daniels (12 points, 8 rebounds) and Ryan Boatright (11 points) scored the first eight points of the game, catching a Michigan State team who lived and died by the three-pointer; taking 29 of its 46 shots from beyond the arc, off guard to open the festivities. However, as Tom Izzo's teams usually do, the Spartans did not go quietly into the New York night, responding with a 23-9 spurt that gave them a 25-21 lead going into halftime.
A 7-2 Michigan State run out of the intermission gave the Spartans a 32-23 cushion with 16:33 remaining in regulation, but back came the Huskies with a 12-0 outburst that gave UConn the lead for good after Daniels' conventional three-point play broke a 32-all tie. Michigan State then pulled within one after Gary Harris and Branden Dawson alternated free throws with Napier, only for UConn to rip off a 12-3 surge punctuated by a Boatright three-pointer with 6:27 to go, making the score 49-39 and whipping a Garden crowd that harkened back to past UConn glory into a frenzy.
However, as former NFL coach Steve Mariucci; Izzo's former college roommate and best man who was in attendance at the "World's Most Famous Arena" to support his close friend, would say, we were not done yet.
The Spartans fought back over the next four minutes on the grace of a 10-2 run, as Keith Appling's layup; the only bucket of the game for Michigan State's senior point guard, cut the UConn lead to 51-49 with 2:38 left. After a turnover by Dawson spoiled chances of a tie game, Napier, as only he could, drained a dagger of a jumper with 99 seconds remaining to put UConn up by four, but Michigan State had one last chance after a pair of Adreian Payne foul shots made the score 53-51 with less than a minute to go.
The new lease on life was short-lived, as Appling committed a fifth foul he will no doubt come to regret for a long time, making contact with Napier behind the three-point line and sending the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player to the charity stripe, where the Huskies missed only one of their 22 attempts. Napier calmly buried all three shots to put UConn up five, and after Travis Trice came up empty on a desperation three-pointer, Daniels scooped up the loose ball and fed Phillip Nolan for a breakaway dunk to put the icing on the cake for just the second No. 7 seed to reach the national semifinals, joining Terry Holland's Virginia team from 1984 that featured Miami's Jim Larranaga as a young assistant coach on his staff.
The significance of this run was not lost on its architect, a young coach who reaches his sport's greatest stage in just his second season and must now prepare to face a top-ranked Florida team that his Huskies have already beaten once this season, in fact, the last loss that Billy Donovan and the Gators have tasted.
"You can't take it for granted," a humble Kevin Ollie remarked moments after he led the team he once played point guard for two decades ago to what is arguably the biggest victory of his career. "I knew what I had. I had faith in my players, a great coaching staff, and my belief in God. I knew God was going to give me a way out of no way, and I thank Him for this opportunity."