- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2014

NEW YORK – Madison Square Garden will always be a reminder of the glory days for Connecticut basketball.

The endless annual slugfests in the Big East Tournament, where seven times it celebrated a championship. Regular-season games against conference rival St. John’s. Tournaments like the Jimmy V Classic or the preseason NIT. They all happened on this hallowed court, a home away from home for three teams that used Big East titles to propel themselves to national championships.

Conference realignment has left the future of Connecticut basketball uncertain. Relegated to the American Athletic Conference, a league with few natural rivals once Louisville leaves next year for the ACC, some wonder if the success is sustainable.

But on Sunday afternoon in New York, before a roaring throng of fans who made the short trip to the Garden, the Huskies showed they are not finished yet.

Senior point guard Shabbaz Napier scored a game-high 25 points, including six in the final two minutes, to help lift the No. 7 seeded Huskies to a 60-54 upset of No. 4 seed Michigan State in the East Regional final and a berth in next weekend’s Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

“We’re definitely still relevant. A Final Four? We have to be relevant,” said former UConn point guard Khalid El-Amin, who led the 1999 Huskies to the national title. “I have no say about any conference. It is what it is right now. But as long as we keep making Final Fours, I don’t care what conference we’re in.”

The Huskies certainly are in elite company. Connecticut has now reached the Final Four five different times in 16 years, winning championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011. To get there this time it eliminated a Michigan State program that itself has appeared in six Final Fours during that stretch.

But few gave the Huskies much chance Sunday. Michigan State entered with 29 wins and had been playing with its full lineup again after weathering injuries to key players Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. The Spartans won the Big Ten tournament title and knocked out No. 1 seed Virginia here Friday.

“No one really gave us a shot this whole ride,” said Huskies senior forward Tyler Olander, whose team outlasted No. 10 seed Saint Joseph’s in overtime in the second round before blowing out former Big East rival Villanova, the No. 2 seed, and then No. 3 seeded Iowa State at the Garden on Friday night. “We don’t really listen to what other people say. We know what we have in this room.”

Michigan State (29-9) looked off from the start on Sunday; Connecticut jumped out to a 12-2 lead by the first television timeout. Napier, one of three players left from that 2011 title team, had only a 3-pointer during that blistering stretch. But his time would come later.

The Spartans fought back into the game thanks in part to six 3-pointers to end the half. They went to the locker room up 25-21 and a Payne jumper with 16:33 to play extended that advantage to 32-23. But it was fools’ gold. When those shots stopped falling, UConn went on a 12-0 run to retake the lead. Napier hit four free throws and a 3-pointer during that decisive run.

The score remained close until a pair of threes by Napier and Ryan Boatright, sandwiched between a dunk from teammate Niels Giffey. Michigan State, plagued by uncharacteristic turnovers all day, 16 in all, was suddenly down 49-39.

But as Virginia found on Friday, the Spartans are a difficult team to put away. Cavaliers guard Justin Anderson called them the most confident team he’d seen this season.

Appling, clearly laboring with a wrist injury that has bothered him since December, scored his first points of the game with 2:38 left, a layup that brought the Spartans to within 51-49. He hit two free throws moments later to make it 53-51 with 58 seconds left.

But then Napier went to work again, drawing a foul while shooting a 3-pointer. He made all three shots and when Travis Trice missed one of his own at the other end, it was over.

It won’t be the first time Connecticut has been to AT&T Stadium, the palace built by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in 2009. With a pair of conference games in Texas against Houston on Dec. 31 and SMU on Jan. 4, Huskies coach Kevin Ollie — a big Cowboys fan — took his team to visit the gleaming complex and they received a tour.

“We spent the rest of the year just picturing [AT&T Stadium],” forward DeAndre Daniels said. “We were all talking about it last night — if we get back there how crazy it would be. Now it’s finally here and it’s a dream come true.”

And the Huskies will see a familiar foe there in the Florida Gators. The two teams waged one of the season’s great games on Dec. 2 at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn. There, Connecticut (29-8) handed the Gators one of their two losses on the season.

Now, after a year out of the postseason thanks to NCAA sanctions related to poor academics during the final years of former coach Jim Calhoun, Connecticut is back to a place it’s long been accustomed to.

“Last year laid the basis for this year,” Giffey said. “We didn’t have no pressure on our back. And maybe it was a good thing. … I think we became more professional about it because we understood the way we had to approach the game was different than any other team. We were not playing for a championship. We were playing for a university that gave us a scholarship, that gave us a great chance to play basketball and compete at that level.”

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