Monday, March 31, 2014
d UConn’s lead quickly disappeared as MSU went on a 23 to 9 run to end the first half. They went into the locker room with a 25 to 21 lead and UConn needed to get reorganized.
Michigan State started out the second half like it ended the first with hot shooting from the outside. They soon ballooned the lead to 9 points and things looked ready to get out of hand, but UConn unleashed Napier. The senior point guard placed UConn on his shoulder and lead them on a 12 point run. They adjusted their game and attacked the basket, getting into the bonus early. They began getting to the line and were able to sustain their offense there. Seizing the lead, the crowd came to life and rattled the rafters of the Garden. Being a great team, Michigan State began chipping away, but Napier sealed the door shut with a clutch jumper and three free throws and UConn completed their magical run through the East Region and into the Final Four.
Adding to his already legendary status, Shabazz Napier has taken UConn on his shoulders and is carrying them to a place none, not even UConn fans, thought they could go, the Final Four. He came out with a furious start, hitting two 3-pointers, a lay-up, and did a masterful time on defense. His jumper was a bit inconsistent throughout the game, but he made clutch shot after clutch shot in the second half. He also adjusted his game and was able to get fouled three times while driving to the basket and sank all 6 of those free throws. Like he had all tournament long, he had the ball in his hand late and he made a key jumper in the lane and got fouled on a 3-point attempt which he promptly knocked them all down. It is hard to put in words exactly what Napier has meant to UConn basketball. He has brought stability to not only his team but to his conference and to see what he has accomplished in his four years in Storrs places him in very elite company.
One of the biggest reasons why UConn is playing in the Final Four is the rejuvenated play of Ryan Boatright. To say that he struggled late in the year would be an understatement. He sometimes found himself riding the pine in the closing minutes of tight ball games, but that has all turned around. He had a jumper, a dunk, and played great defense in the first half. He hit a 3-pointer late in the shot clock, went 4 for 4 from the line, and played disruptive defense in the second half. He still has some really bad shots and passes that lead to points the other way, but he has made significant impacts especially when Napier is on the bench. This team will need his improved play heading into the game versus Florida.
The other reason why UConn is moving forward is DeAndre Daniels’ improved play. UConn looked to feed him early and he hit a turnaround jumper, and had an offensive rebound and put-back. He played with high energy on both ends of the court, skying for big time blocks, getting steals, and playing through contact. He didn’t have as big of an impact offensively as he had in the game against Iowa State, but he still managed to hit a jumper, a turnaround jumper, and hit 3 of 3 from the line in the second half. This is a totally different team when he is playing with this amount of energy and the sky is the limit for him heading forward.
Giffey struggled with his jumper, though a few rolled halfway down, but he played through it and still was able to hit a hook shot and a massive dunk to seal the game. His biggest improvement in the tournament has been his ability to rebound in traffic. He’ll need to continue to battle for those boards with the lack of production from the frontcourt. Kevin Ollie went with a very short bench and Kromah and Samuel combined for only 14 minutes. Kromah flat out struggled when he was out there. He hit 2 of 2 from the line and played solid defense but he didn’t have his usual performance. Samuel played good defense but didn’t have the impact he had in the prior two games. It is amazing that UConn won this game with the little amount of production this unit provided. For UConn to beat Florida, they will need one of these three players to step up and provide a lift offensively.
When Nolan was able to stay on his feet, he did a great job. With the way college basketball has become, the center has become more of a perimeter oriented position. It put a lot of pressure on UConn’s big men but Nolan produced, especially in the second half. He had a lay-up and a big-time dunk. Brimah had a hard time defending without fouling and only played 10 minutes. Olander played a sparse 3 minutes. This unit only provided 4 rebounds in 40 minutes. They’ll need more then that against a bigger and more powerful Florida Gators team.
There’s a certain swagger around this team. They relish the underdog role and are thriving with a combination of excellent free throw shooting, fantastic defense, and clutch shooting. After giving up 16 offensive boards to Iowa State, UConn was able to hold the Spartans to only 6 offensive boards. They’ll need another effort like that against Florida to keep the Gators on their toes defensively. It will come down to UConn’s ability to get to the line and knock down 3-pointers versus Florida’s ability to get second chance points and knock down perimeter jumpers. Whoever can instill their strengths will win this game. It should be an interesting game with UConn already beating Florida, though that was a totally different team. Though there is no stat for magic and UConn might have found it at just the right time.