UConn men play for trip to Final Four today

UConn's Shabazz Napier, left, and coach Kevin Ollie share a laugh during Saturday's media session at Madison Square Garden, where the Huskies will face Michigan State today in the East Region final.
UConn's Shabazz Napier, left, and coach Kevin Ollie share a laugh during Saturday's media session at Madison Square Garden, where the Huskies will face Michigan State today in the East Region final. Frank Franklin II/AP Photo

New York — Earlier this season, the odds of UConn reaching the doorstep of the Final Four appeared as unlikely as snow in July.

The Huskies opened American Athletic Conference play in rocky fashion, suffering a pair of demoralizing losses in a two-game road trip to Texas.

Yet coach Kevin Ollie kept the faith and instilled a belief in the Huskies, just as he did last year when they dealt with a postseason ban.

Before playing SMU in Dallas on Jan. 4, Ollie took his team on a tour of AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys and site the Final Four.

Today, they're playing fourth-seeded Michigan State (29-8) in the East Regional finals (2:20 p.m., Ch. 3) at Madison Square Garden for the right to play in the national semifinals.

They've traveled a long distance in their development since those dark days in early January.

"Honestly, it felt very far away," senior Niels Giffey said of the possibility of returning to AT&T Stadium during that visit. "We understood where we were at in the whole process at that point. I think everybody was still believing and coach Ollie was demanding in a way that he expected us to believe it, too.

"If a coach has that much confidence in you, it's really amazing. You think about the things you can accomplish. It just gives you that different type of feel about togetherness and about the road that you're on."

Seventh-seeded UConn (29-8) is facing experienced and tough-minded Michigan State, a team that's just as driven, hungry and motivated to visit AT&T Stadium. The Spartans play in arguably the best conference in the Big Ten, which had three teams reach the Elite Eight.

After battling through a disruptive injury-plagued period earlier this season, Michigan State is healthy and playing its best basketball. The Spartans are led by coach Tom Izzo, who's 6-1 in Elite Eight appearances.

Michigan State is basically the type of team that's given UConn fits this season. The Huskies will have to pass the ultimate toughness test.

"It's all about toughness," junior Ryan Boatright said. "That's their identity. They're going to come out and try to punk you. They're big down low. They've got some strong guys on the floor. The guards are big. So it's all about toughness, mentally and physically."

It will likely take UConn's best game to win and advance to Final Four for the fifth time in program history.

The Spartans can strike from the inside, leaning on senior Adreian Payne, a rugged 6-10, 245-pound forward who averages 16.5 points and 7.2 rebounds, and 6-6 junior forward Branden Dawson (11.4 points, 8.3 rebounds). Or they can score from the perimeter, where All-Big Ten first team guard Gary Harris operates. Senior Keith Appling also is capable of scoring 20 points in any game.

They've manhandled opponents on the boards, winning the rebounding battle in 14 of the last 15 games. They also play tenacious defense, ranking first in their conference at 39.8 percent.

Izzo feels good about his team but knows UConn is a serious threat. He said that Michigan State has benefited from the adversity that it faced earlier this season.

"It's going to be a good challenge," Izzo said. "They've been through a lot this year and have weathered the storm. Hopefully we're into playing our best basketball down the stretch."

In the last meeting between the two elite programs, UConn scored a memorable upset in Germany, earning a 66-62 win in Ollie's first game as a head coach on Nov. 9, 2012. That significant victory showed the Huskies that anything was possible.

Now they're on the verge of returning to AT&T Stadium.

"That's what faith is all about," Ollie said. "When you can't see it, you still got to believe it. Most of the time we couldn't see it last year, but we knew were continuing to plant seeds and sooner or later it was going to be that right time when we were going to be ready for this moment.

"… If you believe in anything, you can accomplish anything."


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