By Rachel Cohen
NEW YORK: Shabazz Napier owed UConn.
He could have transferred when academic sanctions barred the Huskies from the NCAA tournament his junior season. But the guard wanted to pay back the school for the joy of a national title his freshman year, for his struggles as a sophomore.
Napier sure did that Sunday, carrying UConn back to the Final Four in front of thousands of roaring Huskies fans at Madison Square Garden.
He scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half in a 60-54 upset of fourth-seeded Michigan State.
The East Regional’s most outstanding player hit three huge free throws with 30.6 seconds left, making clutch shot after clutch shot just as Kemba Walker did when Napier was a freshman. The Huskies (30-8) rallied from a nine-point second-half deficit to become the first No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“His will to win — you could just see it,” said Gary Harris, who led Michigan State with 22 points. “He wasn’t going to let his team lose.”
The Spartans’ seniors become the first four-year players recruited by Tom Izzo to fail to make a Final Four.
“As the game got closer and closer to ending, it was on my mind a lot, every huddle,” said big man Adreian Payne, who had 13 points and nine rebounds but was repeatedly pushed to the perimeter by UConn’s defenders.
The undersized Huskies matched Michigan State’s physical play box-out for box-out, holding the Spartans (29-9) to just six offensive rebounds and six points in the paint.
“We’re physical, too,” said second-year coach Kevin Ollie, who is now 4-0 in the NCAA tournament after replacing mentor Jim Calhoun. “Don’t get it mixed up. We are predators out there.”
The Huskies face Florida in the national semifinals Saturday, and they’ll be confident they can beat the No. 1 overall seed. The Gators have won 30 straight, but their last loss was to UConn, 65-64 on Dec. 2.
After the Huskies were routed 81-48 by Louisville in the regular-season finale, Ollie showed his players video of that victory to remind them of what happens when they play frenetic defense.
“We’re going to be well prepared, because I know about these guys’ heart,” Ollie said. “That’s what got us through: It was a heart of a champion, heart of a lion.”