JOE D’S NOTEBOOK March 30th
SUNDAY NIGHT, MARCH 30- Use any descriptive adjective to refer to what the UConn men have done in the past 48 hours at Madison Square Garden and it will still be an understatement of what took place. Yes, The Huskies are headed to AT&T Stadium in Arlington aka Jerry’s World to play in the Final Four. Sunday’s 60-54 win over Michigan State punched their ticket to their fifth Final Four.
The pre game speculation was Michigan State would beat up UConn inside. Well, the Spartans got six points in the paint and a mere two second chance points. The strength of Adreian Payne and Brandon Dawson was never a factor. Payne hurt the Huskies from outside, as did Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine but the inside trouble never materialized.
Still, when Payne scored to make it 32-23 early in the second half to cap a 16-2 MSU run, it looked like UConn was there for the taking. But Kevin Ollie called timeout, settled the troops and the rest of the game belonged to the team in the National Flag Blue and White. Once again, the incomparable Shabazz Napier orchestrated things with a game high 25 points, earning Regional Most Outstanding Player honors. He and Ryan Boatright attacked the paint in the second half and again, when they did that, it opened things up offensively for UConn. Boatright added 11 and De Andre Daniels had 12, including the old fashioned three point play that gave UConn the lead for good at 35-32.
And with the game in the balance, UConn made all the big plays at both ends of the floor.The Huskies got to loose balls, converted turnovers and once again, made their free throws to the tune of 21 for 22. Their free throw shooting in the NCAA’s has been off the charts.
Of course, playing at the Garden was a huge advantage. The UConn partisans in the stands were loud and vociferous and the players acknowledged what effect it had on them. To whiny people who think UConn as a seven seed shouldn’t have gotten to play at MSG, they earned it by beating the #2 seed in the region, Villanova.
And the work of this group this weekend is testament to the tremendous job done by Kevin Ollie and his staff. Remember, this was a team that lost its regular season finale by 33 points. And now, amazingly, they are one of four teams left in the hunt.
A word about Michigan State. There is not a better person who coaches at the college level than Tom Izzo. A class act through and through and an example for younger coaches on how to handle themselves. And thanks to John Paquette and his crew from running a terrific event at the Garden. It was handled flawlessly.
During the week, I’ll delve into the Florida game, today is the time to honor and congratulate this coaching staff and team for a most unexpected run to basketball’s Promised Land.