GAME NOTES: After toppling top-seeded Virginia on Friday, the Michigan State Spartans will face the upstart Connecticut Huskies in the East Region Final at New York's famed Madison Square Garden.
Led by American Athletic Player of the Year Shabazz Napier, UConn has been playing above the No. 7 seed it earned in this tournament. The Huskies knocked off third-seeded Iowa State (81-76) in the Sweet 16, following a 77-65 upset of second-seeded Villanova. They are now attempting to reach the Final Four just three years removed from their surprising run to the 2011 national title.
The Sweet 16 battle between Michigan State and Virginia was as advertised, with the fourth-seeded Spartans surviving with a 61-59 victory. The win was the sixth straight for Tom Izzo's club, which includes their run to the Big Ten Tournament title. The Spartans are back in the Elite Eight for the first time since 2010, which was also the last time they made it to the Final Four.
The 2010 trip to the Final Four was the second straight for MSU, which actually defeated UConn (82-73) in the 2009 semifinals before falling to North Carolina in the national title tilt. These teams have met twice since, with UConn winning both times to pull ahead in the all-time series, 3-2.
The winner this time will take on No. 1 overall seed Florida in the Final Four next Saturday.
UConn dominated in the first half and then held on in the second to pull off the upset of Iowa State. The Huskies led by as many as 17 points and shot 52 percent for the game, while holding scoring edges from both 3-point range (27-18) and the free-throw line (20-6).
DeAndre Daniels (13 ppg, 5.8 rpg) came up big in the win, controlling the paint with a team-high 27 points to go with 10 rebounds and a pair of blocked shots. Daniels is clearly the most productive performer in close to the basket for the Huskies, who rely more on their talented backcourt. At the forefront of that game plan is Napier. The 6-foot-1 guard, who was a freshman on the 2011 national title squad, leads this year's team in scoring (17.9 ppg), assists (4.9 apg), rebounding (5.9 rpg) and steals (1.8 spg). Ryan Boatright (12.1 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Niels Giffey (8.4 ppg, .514 3P percentage) provide depth and offensive punch out on the perimeter.
After trading leads during the first 38 minutes of action on Friday, Michigan State was tied with Virginia at 51-51 with 1:49 to play. The Spartans then got a 3-pointer from Adreian Payne and a dunk from Branden Dawson to take control of the game, as they held on by hitting 5-of-7 free-throws in the final minute.
Dawson compiled 24 points and 10 rebounds, and Payne had 16 points in the win over Virginia, as the frontcourt tandem powered Michigan State not just in that key stretch, but the entire game. The rest of the team managed only 23 points on 7-of-19 shooting. Leading the charge offensively is not a rare occurrence for Payne (16.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who is second on the roster in scoring, but getting such a productive effort from Dawson (11.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg) was a surprise, considering he is more of a complementary scorer. To defeat the Huskies, the Spartans will need better play from their key backcourt contributors -- Gary Harris (16.6 ppg) and Keith Appling (11.4 ppg, 4.5 apg), who combined for a mere eight points against Virginia.
Although this is technically a neutral-site affair, there is no question that UConn has a bit of an edge playing at Madison Square Garden. However, the Huskies are too thin inside to expect to overpower Michigan State like they did Iowa State. As long as Harris and Appling return to form, the Spartans' superior balance should win out.
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