A weekend of great basketball concluded with UConn and Kentucky grabbing the final two places in the Final Four, alongside Florida and Wisconsin who won on Saturday. The Huskies beat Michigan State in a good game, and Kentucky survived Michigan in a stupendous game in what is turning out to be a tournament for the ages for the young Wildcats.
Kentucky has now played three consecutive games against high-quality opponents, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan. All three games have been played at an appropriately high level and been nothing short of breathtaking to watch. All three games have come down to the final shot.
The Wildcats won the first two when the opponent missed a last long jumper from behind the arc. In Sunday afternoon’s finale, it was Kentucky taking the big shot and nailing it, as Aaron Harrison drilled a trey over the outstretched hand of Michigan’s Caris Levert—who was correctly praised by CBS analyst Greg Anthony for having defended the shot as well you can ask—and broke a 72-72 tie with seconds to play.
It was one of four treys by Harrison, the only way he scored all game, and all four came in a flurry down the stretch to close the game.
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Harrison’s shooting was clutch, both today and throughout the tournament run. But it was Julius Randle who was named the Midwest Regional’s Outstanding Player. Randle scored 16 points and hauled in 11 rebounds. Kentucky brings a significant size advantage to the table each time they play, and the 35-24 rebounding advantage of today was the latest example.
Randle is the reason Kentucky can throw bodies around in the paint and the decision to give him regional MVP honors was a good one. I was pleasantly surprised, I thought the media might ignore Randle’s consistent control of both games, including Louisville on Friday night, and go for the kid who hit the last-second shot.
Michigan is worthy of exceptional praise for their effort and their entire season. Even though they were the 2-seed and the Kentucky on the 8-line, that’s merely reflective of the fact that the Wolverine kids played to the max of their ability all year, not just a couple weeks in March. One possession in particular stands out—trailing 72-70 and being undersized, Michigan got four consecutive offensive rebounds—all on hustle plays, none due to good bounces—and finally tied the game.
Nik Stauskas knocked in 24 points for Michigan and one of his biggest shots was the one he passed up—trailing 72-67, he got the ball moderately open behind the arc, and gave up the ball to a truly wide open Glenn Robinson III in the corner. Robinson knocked it down.
Ultimately though, raw talent coming together was what decided the game. Now that Kentucky has found themselves and is playing with consistency, there’s no one to stop them. You have Randle and the inside supporting cast seeming to hurl bodies about the lane. Harrison is knocking down threes. They have all the pieces and now they’re playing like it.
UConn 60 Michigan State 54: Huskie guard Shabazz Napier scored 25 points as UConn rode a home crowd advantage in Madison Square Garden to a win over Michigan State in a game that fluctuated wildly.
UConn was up by double digits seemingly before anyone was settled in their seats. Michigan State came back and seemed to take control after the half. Then UConn came back and had everything under control with a 10-point lead. Michigan State had an answer and cut the lead to two and had the ball as the clock closed in on a minute.
It was here the Spartans made two critical errors. Their fine center Adrien Payne, turned it over when he risked putting the ball on the floor on the post, a no-no for a big man. Then, after a poor UConn possession resulted in a Napier trey from well behind the arc, Michigan State’s senior guard Keith Appling bailed out Napier by fouling him. It wasn’t a lot of contact, but on a three-point shot, anything on the elbow is enough to merit being called. Three straight free throws all but sealed the deal.
Napier is running neck-and-neck with Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky for best player for the 2014 NCAA Tournament thus far, and the work he did both offensively and defensively was fantastic. Napier was 10-for-11 from the foul line on Sunday, and UConn’s 21/22 of performance as a team from the charity stripe was the difference in a game that was good, albeit rather ugly.
The Final Four goes next Saturday in Dallas. It’s TBS that has the coverage, the first time since 1981 a network not named CBS will have the action. The games start at 6:09 PM ET, and it’s UConn-Florida followed by Wisconsin-Kentucky. TheSportsNotebook’s NCAA Tournament coverage will be back Sunday with a recap of both games.