Napier, Huskies weren't about to back down

UConn's Shabazz Napier (13) drives past Michigan State forward Adreian Payne to score two of his 25 points during the Huskies' 60-54 win Sunday in the East Regional championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York. UConn will face No. 1 Florida in Saturday's national semifinals in Arlington, Texas.
UConn's Shabazz Napier (13) drives past Michigan State forward Adreian Payne to score two of his 25 points during the Huskies' 60-54 win Sunday in the East Regional championship game at Madison Square Garden in New York. UConn will face No. 1 Florida in Saturday's national semifinals in Arlington, Texas. Julio Cortez/AP Photo

New York — A bloodied Shabazz Napier slowly walked off the floor after getting accidentally hit in the face during Sunday's East Regional final.

UConn fans in the Madison Square Garden crowd quietly watched their team's star head to the bench with 12 and a half minutes left in a tie game.

It was the second time in the tournament that Napier has left the game with an injury, as a bruised shin temporarily sidelined him against Villanova last week in Buffalo.

On both occasions, Napier returned to lead the Huskies, this time to a 60-54 win over Michigan State and a trip to the NCAA Final Four in Texas.

Say this about Napier: He certainly has a flair for the dramatic. He scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half to fuel a comeback from a nine-point deficit.

Napier went down with a bloody nose after tangling with Michigan State's Garry Harris on the perimeter.

"I was trying to go for the steal," Napier said. "He was going to the ball and then he went to push me away, and just so happened to hit me in the face, in my nose. I just started bleeding. That's part of the game. I didn't think he did it on purpose."

After returning, Napier finally shook free from a physical defense and scored 10 points in the final 10 minutes, including sinking three free throws with 30.6 seconds left for a 56-51 edge. He earned the region's Most Outstanding Player award.

The Spartans praised Napier's will to win.

"You could just see it." Harris said. "He wasn't going to let his team lose. He was the one making the big plays for them at the end … and that's why he's such a great player."

Napier moved up on the school's all-time charts in several categories. He passed Ray Allen for fourth on the scoring list with 1,925 points. He's now first in free throws made (503) and first in games played (141).

Welcome to the club

Napier and fellow seniors Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander joined an exclusive club at UConn by advancing to their second Final Four.

Kemba Walker and Donnell Beverly are the only others, competing in the 2009 and 2011 Final Fours. The Huskies won it all in 2011, beating Butler in Houston.

"Hopefully, we can be the first class to win two national championships," Olander said. "Not many people can say they played in two Final Fours. Hopefully, we can get past Florida."

UConn plays Florida (36-2) in Saturday night's national semifinal (6:09, TBS) at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.

Inside presence

UConn big man Phil Nolan has had an inconsistent sophomore season, but he rose to the occasion on Sunday.

The 6-foot-10, 212-pound Nolan provided a valuable physical presence and helped limit senior Adreian Payne, a 6-10, 245-pound forward, to 13 points on 4-for-14 shooting. He chased the versatile Payne inside and outside. He also added four points and four rebounds in 27 minutes.

"I just tried to contain him and no easy touches on the post," Nolan said. "On the perimeter, I know he's mobile and I'm mobile, and I was able to move my feet. I didn't want him to shoot the ball at all. Every time he caught the ball, I was in his face."

UConn's interior defense was pivotal in the win.

Junior DeAndre Daniels did a great job shutting down Branden Dawson, who had just five points and eight rebounds.

Dawson and Payne averaged a combined 36 points and 14 rebounds in Michigan State's first three NCAA games.

News and notes

UConn improved to 5-6 in Elite Eight games and 36-8 in the NCAA tournament since 1999. … Garden magic: UConn won 1988 NIT title at Madison Square Garden 26 years ago on Sunday. "That's where it all started," associate head coach Glen Miller said. … Several former Huskies attended the game, including Andre Drummond, Rip Hamilton, Nantambu Willingham, Taliek Brown and Khalid El-Amin. Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun warmly embraced Ollie during the postgame celebration. … UConn held Michigan State to eight transition baskets. The Spartans came in averaging 18.5 fast break points. … The seventh-seeded Huskies are the lowest seed in school history to make the Final Four. The previous low was No. 3 in 2011.

g.keefe@theday.com

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