A Look Back At MSG

KO cuts down net

Sweet 16 Recap

I took the 2pm express train from Darien to a Grand Central Station packed with UCONN fans. As early as 4pm there was a definite buzz in the city and you could hear the chants ring out on the walk down 7th.  Inside, the Garden didn’t feel like 40% UCONN fans, not to say it didn’t get loud but Virginia orange was the dominant color in my opinion. Not say UCONN’s presence wasn’t felt- we dominated section 109 behind the Husky bench from family members in the first few rows up to the student section in 209.  As for the game, Deandre Daniels played like a man and we benefited, plain and simple. Shabazz came out and knocked down 4 early three’s but instead of focusing solely on his hot hand, was able to get Deandre into the flow of the game. Niels provided relief on the glass with 7 rebounds and knocked down a Rashad Anderson dagger with two minutes remaining for a 7 point advantage. Terrence Samuel once again stepped up with quality minutes and clutch free throws in his return to NYC.

Defensively, we were able to control Deandre Kane, forcing him into a 6-18 night. Our rotation of guards were able to tire Kane-who played the entire 40 minutes- evidenced by his 2-9 performance from the line (64% on the season, 5-7 vs UNC). Big 12 POY Melvin Ejim was also frustrated into a 3-13 night. Hogue once again played like a monster finishing with 34 points and 6 rebounds, in part perhaps to the defensive focus on Kane/Ejim. Hogue couldn’t beat us single handedly- Kane/Ejim were the players we had to shut down and we went out and shut them down. Another key to the game was UCONN’s superiority at the foul line. UCONN shot 91% (20-22) while Iowa State combined to go 40% (6-15). 5 of those 9 misses make up the difference in the game. Free throws win games and this team makes free throws. We are gaining confidence as the stage gets brighter and need this trend to continue to advance.

Elite 8 Recap

Keys

Deandre Daniels

If Shabazz is Kemba then Deandre Daniels is Alex Oriakhi. Although their styles of play are drastically different, Daniels is providing the boost Alex gave during the stretch run in 2011. Rebounds. Big Blocks. Dunks inciting the crowd. Intensity. Deandre has emerged as the big man scoring option UCONN desperately needed. When Deandre is on, pressure is off Shabazz to score and he is able to get into his own flow and facilitate the game. One of the most telling signs occurred with 12 minutes to go in the second half. With a much smaller Appling defending, Deandre posted up and went to work delivering the bucket through contact for an AND-1. He did not hover around the three point line like earlier in the season but instead saw a mismatch and worked to exploit it. He wanted the ball and delivered, the sign of a scorer finally recognizing his abilities. Watch out Florida.

Atmosphere

In 10 years of attending UCONN games at MSG, this is the first time in my life UCONN controlled the Garden. As I walked towards the Garden Sunday afternoon, UCONN chants rang out far before 34th and 7th. This was one of the best college games I have ever attended solely due to atmosphere. The Garden was electric and filled with Husky Blue. You could tell from the first possession of the game UCONN was in the building. Michigan State’s Adreian Payne could not get past Husky big Philip Nolan who ultimately forced the star forward to travel accompanied by an immediate uproar from UCONN Country. Michigan State could not get comfortable, UCONN fed off the energy and MSG was capable of willing the Huskies to victory. At times it felt like Michigan State was intimidated by the environment and it caused them to stray from their game-plan. In a game of runs, UCONN jumped out to a 12-2 lead largely due to crowd energy. Boat set the tone defensively from the start with tight on ball pressure forcing Michigan State turnovers. Niels break away dunk with 8 minutes left set the crowd into a frenzy and the noise never ceased. Nolan’s dunk to close the game was the second loudest I’ve ever heard a UCONN crowd at the Garden (Kemba’s stepback). Dallas is much farther than New York but hopefully UCONN can ride the momentum created at MSG on Sunday afternoon.

Defense

Defense wins the big games and UCONN brought it on the defensive end Sunday. Credit Philip Nolan/Amida Brimah for their efforts on MSU big man Adreian Payne. A 6’10 240 pound bruiser, UCONN was able to body Payne and keep him floating around the perimeter. As a result, Payne settled for ten 3 pointers as opposed to establishing an inside game. In fact, we held a much larger, more physical Michigan State team to only 6 points in the paint. Six points in the paint were the second fewest for any team in the past five NCAA tournaments. How did we do it? Toughness. Determination. Team Defense. UCONN wanted it more and it translated on the court. From Nolan’s inital stop to Boat/Bazz defensive pressure in the opening minutes, we brought it. Instead of answering with physical play, MSU settled for jump shots which is a testament to UCONN’s defense. Not only do our players believe no one will get by them but now opposing players are starting to believe it.

Free Throws

UCONN shot 95% (21-22) from the line.

X Factors

Role Players

Nolan came up huge. Giffey did not shoot well but crashed the boards. Boat’s defensive tenacity got the crowd involved early. Brimah gave quality minutes. Different players are stepping up when their name is called. It doesn’t matter who it comes from we just need to piece it together each game.

Confidence

Middle of the season this game would have gone much differently. Nolan would not have stopped Payne. Deandre would not call for the ball in the post. Giffey would not recover from early missed shots. Why the different outcome? CONFIDENCE. UCONN has it and it’s not going away.

Notes

To anyone feeling sorry for Michigan State having to play in UCONN’s backyard, don’t be. The 2009 Final Four against UCONN in Detroit was a home game for MSU as they packed Ford Field with green and white. Justice has been served.

A big thanks to Tyler Olander for tickets to both games making this all possible.

 

UCONN- Florida 12.2.2013

You knew Shabazz Napier wouldn’t lose. Standing in Section 218, I had a clear view of his ear to ear smile after knocking down yet another big three. A smile as assertive as it was provoking; he was daring Florida to stop him. And they couldn’t. Drawing 6’8 Will Yeguete on a switch with 10:08 remaining in the second half, Shabazz went to work. Yeguete bit on the initial up-fake, but, in a move straight out of the book of Shabazz, he waited for the bigger defender to reset before pulling up to bury the trey. Shabazz Napier has grown from freshman to captain, point guard to leader. Afforded the fortune of working closely with the team during the 2011 National Championship run, I can’t help but draw comparisons between the two floor generals.
Kemba Walker entered the 2011 season with a clear understanding of his role in the winning formula. Armed with confidence built from hours of offseason sweat, he approached practice with an attitude that he could not be stopped. The work he put in translated through his performance and won him the respect of the team far before his Maui heroics. 2011 started as Kemba’s team from Day One. You couldn’t stop him. He was a man among boys, flying to the rim at will. His fearlessness resonated deeply with his understudy.
Shabazz Napier entered the 2013 season with a Kemba-esque attitude. His summer fling with the NBA only increased his focus on developing the skills necessary for success at the next level. This understanding, matched with unparalleled confidence has proven lethal to opponents thus far. Although I am not nearly as involved this year, there is no doubt this is Shabazz’ team. Games will be won and lost in his hands. There will be ups and downs as there is during any learning curve however make no mistake, this team has what it takes to reach another Final Four. The chemistry is there. The faith in leadership is there. The ability to win close games is there.  The will to battle for every rebound fighting bigger/more athletic opponents is there. I don’t care that we lost the rebounding battle- Florida is as long as they are big- we fought to secure defensive rebounds in crunch time and tipped as many offensive boards as possible to keep the possession alive. These are elements of the winning formula no statistics or rankings can accurately measure.
As Shabazz backpedaled down the court smiling in the face of Wilbekin, I felt an overwhelming sense of reassurance. I had seen that face before too many times. Kemba Walker had the same type of look. The I-know-you-can’t-get-past-me-but-I-can-get-past-you type of look few players can relate to. Shabazz took the Florida game over as he watched his counterpart do time and time again two years ago. Now it’s his turn. And he did not disappoint.