By Dom Amore
NEW YORK -- The trends were all going against UConn, a position in which the Huskies have found themselves many times, in many ways, the past couple of years.
Michigan State had built a nine-point lead when coach Kevin Ollie called time out.
"And when Coach looks at me in a certain way," Shabazz Napier said, "I just know I've got to be more aggressive."
All of this has become familiar for the Huskies, so familiar that it just takes a look to push the right buttons. Napier hit a three-pointer out of that timeout, and suddenly UConn was back to pressuring on defense, creating turnovers, making critical shots. Napier, as he has done so many times, was carrying the day.
And although old rivals might be going to one power conference or another, the Huskies, when they were finished on Sunday, were going back to place that has become quite familiar -- the Final Four.
"It was just an amazing feeling to do it at Madison Square Garden," Ollie said. "...It puts a great bow on this gift, and we're going to unwrap it again down in Texas."
Napier scored 25 points to lead UConn to a 60-54 victory over Michigan State in the East Regional Final at the Garden. It's a new world in college basketball, a new coach and a strange new conference, the American Athletic, but the Huskies' tradition endures.
"Kevin learned from Jim [Calhoun]," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "His teams play the same way -- hard, tough. It's in the DNA over there."
The Huskies (30-8) are going to the Final Four for the fifth time since 1999, the third time since 2009, poised to pursue a fourth national championship. Ollie, who took over for Calhoun in September 2012, was never afraid to think out of that one-game-at-a-time box. He took the Huskies to AT&T Stadium, site of the Final Four, during a trip to Dallas in January, after one of their worst losses of the season.
"Coach Ollie did that for a reason," Napier said. "He wanted to motivate us to understand what we can be if we work hard. I guess it worked. We don't want to lose."
UConn will play Florida, the top-ranked team in the country, the top-seeded team in the entire tournament, in the national semifinals next Saturday. UConn beat Florida at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 2; the Gators have not lost since.
"We told ourselves we deserve to be here," DeAndre Daniels said. "We're going to work hard and believe in ourselves. Just picturing the Dallas arena, we were all talking about it [Saturday night], how crazy it would be if we got there."
The Huskies came out with a surge, the crowd at the Garden sounding as if it were a packed Gampel Pavilion, only twice its size. UConn's defense forced a handful of turnovers, and the Huskies started out, as they did Friday night, with their shooting touch.
Napier hit a fall-away three to give UConn an 11-2 lead, and Daniels, who had scored two early field goals, added a free throw to make it a 10-point lead with 15:12 left in the half.
"We wanted to fight," Ollie said. "We wanted to throw the first punch, and I think we did that."
The Spartans took the punch, then began fighting back, their defense asserting itself and cooling off the Huskies' shooters. Adreian Payne, the 6-10 forward, stepped out and hit a couple of wide-open three-point goals to help Michigan State trim the lead to two points.
As the game settled in to the grinding defensive affair that was expected, Gary Harris (22 points) hit threes on successive trips down the floor to give the Spartans their first lead, 22-21, with 3:27 to go. Harris was 5-for-7 in the first half, the most effective shooter on the floor, scoring 12.
Denzel Valentine's three just before the half gave Michigan State a 25-21 lead, as UConn made only 8 of its last 22 shots. The going got rougher in the second half when Payne hit another open three to extend the Spartans lead to nine points with 16:33 to play.
"Coach told us to keep our composure," Napier said. "They made their run, now we were going to make ours."
Everything was negative -- the Huskies were shooting 27 percent -- when Napier made his three, and Ryan Boatright's long pass to Phil Nolan ended in a layup to cut Michigan State's lead to 32-28. Momentum changed. Two UConn stops, then Napier got himself to the line and cut it to 32-30 with 13:20 to go, and suddenly the game was playing at the Huskies' pace again. Two more from Napier at the line, and the Huskies tied it. MSU went 5:50 without scoring, and the Huskies regained the lead on Daniels' three-point play with 11:46 to go.
"It started with ball pressure," Ollie said.
UConn matched MSU (29-9) basket for basket, push for shove from there on.
"We're physical, too," Ollie said. "Don't get it mixed up -- we're predators out there. We used our toughness mentally."
Napier came out briefly as trainer James Doran tended to a bloody nose, then returned and continued to attack the basket. Fouled as he attempted a three, he made all three at the line to seal the game with 30 seconds left.
"His will to win, you could just see it," Harris, a sophomore, said of Napier. "He wasn't going to let his team lose."
Napier also had six assists. Daniels had 12 points and eight rebounds, Boatright had 11 points. The Huskies shot just 34 percent -- normally reliable Niels Giffey couldn't buy one on this day -- but did it with defense and grit, and by going 21-for-22 at the line, 41-for-44 in the two victories at the Garden.
When it was over, the Huskies lingered on the floor, with former UConn stars like Rip Hamilton, Cliff Robinson and Khalid El-Amin and former coach Calhoun joining in the celebration. The majority -- the overwhelming majority -- of fans were Huskies faithful.
"We feel the intensity from our crowd," Napier said. "We feel the intensity just from the overwhelming sensation when you first walk in here. It's a special feeling to continue to create our history and win games here."