Connecticut Moves to Final Four after 60-54 Win over Michigan State at MSG

Howard Goldin

New York, NY---Two national basketball powers, the Connecticut Huskies and the Michigan State Spartans, clashed in the Elite Eight game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. Both teams entered the game with identical 29-8 marks this season. The two last met in a NCAA Tournament game in the 2009 semifinals, which was won by the Spartans. This was the third appearance by the Huskies (2009. 2011 and 2014) in the Elite Eight in the last six years.

Although the contest appeared to be very competitively played, the score was knotted only once and the lead changed hands twice. The Huskies, with a very large percentage of the 19,499 in the stands loudly supporting them, took a quick double-double advantage.

The Huskies went out to a 12-2 lead in less than five minutes (15:12). Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie explained why, “We wanted to throw the first punch” Tom Izzo, the Spartans coach described the beginning in these words, “They got off to agreat start and we looked like we were walking in quicksand there for a little while.”

A 20-9 Michigan State run capped by a three by Gary Harris accounted for the only lead change in the first half, 22-21, at 3:28. The Spartans held a 25-21 lead at the half. Of the latter minutes of the first period, Izzo stated, “We came back and did some good things. We went on a big run of our own.”

The Spartans maintained a single digit lead until 12:38 of the second half when a free throw by UConn superstar Shabazz Napier was netted. A jump shot by Deandre Daniels of the Huskies gave then a 34-32 lead at 11:46 that they would never relinquish.

Izzo attributed his team’s loss to two factors, turnovers and free throws. The Spartans doubled the Huskies in turnovers in each half, 8 to 4. Izzo remarked on turnovers, “The biggest key to the whole day was we turned the ball over.” Harris concurred with his coach, “Those turnovers definitely cost us. We have to be better from top to bottom, and we just can’t let those things happen.”

Izzo also mentioned the free throw disparity between the two teams, “Give them credit, they got to the line a lot. It’s been a problem, and they made 21-22. You got to give them a lot of credit. They made a lot of big free throws.” The Spartans only went to the charity stripe for eight shots and netted seven, a difference of 14 points in a game won by six, 60-54.

Shabazz Napier was the MVP with 25 points, four assists and six rebounds. After the contest, Harris, who scored 22 for the Spartans, described the positives of his opponent, Shabazz, “His will to win. You could just see it. He wasn’t going to let his team lose. He was the one making the big plays for them at the end of the stretch, and that’s why he’s such a great player is just because you could just see by playing against him, he’s a winner and he willed his team to win.”

Connecticut will face favored  Florida in the semi-finals of the Final Four in Texas. Interestingly, they met on December 2, with Connecticut victorious, 65-64.

Howardg53@yahoo.com