NEW YORK — Just a year removed from being barred from the NCAA Tournament, the Connecticut Huskies are heading to the Final Four.
Led by point guard Shabazz Napier’s 25 points, seventh-seeded UConn (30-8) defeated fourth-seeded Michigan State 60-54 in the finals of the East Regional on Sunday before 19,499 at Madison Square Garden.
UConn didn’t participate in last season’s tournament because of previous low scores on the NCAA’s progress measure.
Sophomore guard Gary Harris led the fourth-seeded Spartans (29-9) with 22 points and senior forward Adreian Payne chipped in with 13 points.
This is the Huskies fifth appearance in the Final Four.
Payne sank two free throws with 57.6 to play to bring Michigan State to within 53-51, but Napier was fouled by Keith Appling attempting to shoot a 3-pointer on the Huskies next possession. Napier sank all three shots with 50 seconds left for a 56-51 cushion.
A driving runner from Appling, his first points of the game, cut the Huskies’ lead to 51-49 at 2:40, but Napier countered with a fall-away jumper to make it 53-49 with 1:24 on the clock.
A layup from Michigan State forward Branden Dawson cut the UConn lead to 37-36 with 9:40 to go, but the Huskies used a 12-3 run to extend their lead to 49-39 at the 6:20 mark.
A pair of free throws from Napier tied it at 32-32 with 12:38 to play and a traditional three-point play from forward DeAndre Daniels gave the Huskies a 35-32 edge with 11:47 remaining.
Payne scored five straight points on a 3-pointer and a mid-range jumper to extend the Spartans’ lead to 32-23 3:28 into the second half.
Harris deposited two consecutive 3-pointers to provide Michigan State with its first lead of the half, 22-21, at the 3:33 mark and guard Denzel Valentine’s trey from the right elbow with 23 seconds left allowed the Spartans a 25-21 halftime lead.
UConn missed its last seven shots of half, three by Napier, who scored eight points in the half.
The Huskies opened with a 12-2 lead 4:48 into the game, helped by four turnovers by the Spartans. Michigan State went 5:49 without a basket until a layup from Harris with 11:53 left in the half ended the drought.
NOTES: Kevin Ollie’s first game as coach at Connecticut was a 66-62 win against Michigan State on Nov. 9, 2012. … This was Michigan State’s eighth trip to the Elite Eight under coach Tom Izzo. UConn has appeared in 11 Elite Eight’s. … The last NCAA Tournament meeting Michigan State and UConn was an 82-73 by the Spartans in the 2009 Final Four. … Since Izzo took over at Michigan State in 1995, every player he has recruited who stayed four years has reached a Final Four. … Ollie played 124 games for UConn, averaging 6.7 points and 5.0 assists as a point guard from 1991-92 to 1995-96.
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