UConn has made five Elite 8 appearances, and on four occasions, they've advanced to the Final Four, most recently, Sunday afternoon when the No. 7 Huskies outlasted the No. 4 Michigan St. Spartans, 60-54, thanks in large part to all-everything senior point guard Shabazz Napier, who scored 25 points, including eight down the stretch.
UConn led by 10 in the early moments of the game, but the Spartans fought back, and were up by as much as even before halftime. Four minutes in the second half, a Huskies basket broke a 16-2 Michigan St. run and precipitated an 11-0 UConn run of their own. With 11:47 left in the game, the Spartans' lead had been cut to 34-32. By then, the Huskies' had found a rhythm, the defense had stiffened, and Napier promptly got to work.
So what changed UConn's fortunes? "We got stops," Coach Kevin Ollie explained to CBS Sports' Bill Raftery moments after the win. "We have something called 'kills' -- that's three stops in a row -- and we had four of them in the second half. We stopped them and then we got on the break and we recovered. We got down 10, we recovered and that's what we've done all year."
In many ways, the 2013-14 UConn team is reminiscent of the 2010-11 squad that reeled off 11 straight post-season wins on their way to an improbable national title. Shabazz Napier is capably reprising the role of Kemba Walker, the one-man scoring machine who put the team on his back three years ago.
"He's big time," Ollie said of Napier. "He's a leader and he'd probably play 40 more minutes. But it's not about him, it's about everybody else, and he's the first one to say that. And that's what a team is all about. How 'bout them Huskies?" the coach added with a laugh.
Napier, as is often the case, was both serious and understated in his post-game comments.
"I felt like the whole game we didn't play to the best of our abilities," he said. "We weren't making a lot of shots but I felt like we had a chance to win this game. Go to the basket strong, get fouled, and just do the things that the UConn Huskies do. And fortunately enough, we got the win."
The turnaround came midway through the second half when, after Michigan St. cut UConn's lead to two, Napier came down the court and drained a 25-footer with a defender draped all over him. At the other end of the court, he Huskies rebounded a missed Spartans shot and Napier promptly found a wide-open Niels Giffey for an easy dunk to give UConn a 46-39 lead with 7:28 to go. A possession later, Ryan Boatright drained a 3 to stretch the lead to 10.
The Spartans made back-to-back 3s to make it a four-point game but -- you guessed it -- Napier converted a tough 15-footer, and on the next trip down the court was fouled while shooting a 3. Not surprisingly, Napier converted all three. Which isn't a surprise for anyone paying attention to this team. For the game, UConn made a staggering 21 of 22 free throw attempts. And in their last 92 free throw attempts, they've made 81.
"I'm not dreaming," Ollie said of the team's run through the NCAAs. "We're going to Texas and we want to win a national championship," the coach continued, echoing his comments from before the tournament when, frankly, most people thought he was just trying to motivate his team. "That's what it's all about. [My team], I love them and they played so hard. Our UConn fans have been here and it's great to win at Madison Square Garden, and for us to win here is something special."
UConn will face Florida next Saturday in the Final Four. These two teams met last on Dec. 2 at Gampel Pavilion, where the Huskies pulled off the upset thanks to a last-second Napier jumper. In the almost-four month since, the Gators are 30-0.
Three weeks ago, UConn was blown out of the water by Louisville, 81-48 in the regular-season finale. They're 6-1 since, with a rematch with Florida less than a week away. How 'bout them Huskies, indeed.