Spartans, Huskies one step closer
Two programs very familiar of late with the NCAA tournament's round of eight will meet for the right to go to the Final Four.
Michigan State, the No. 4 seed that has become one of the favorites to win the title, and Connecticut, a No. 7 seed enjoying the underdog role, both won Friday night in the East Regional semifinals and they will play Sunday with the winner heading to North Dallas for the Final Four.
The Spartans (29-8) beat top-seeded Virginia 61-59 and gave a defensive clinic in the win.
Connecticut (29-8) advanced with an 81-76 victory over third-seeded Iowa State in a game where both teams were making a lot of shots.
Michigan State is in the round of eight for the eighth time since 1999 and the Spartans are 6-1 in those games.
Connecticut is in the round of eight for the ninth time since 1995 and the Huskies are 4-4 in those games.
Michigan State and Connecticut met in the national semifinals in 2009, an 82-73 victory for the Spartans.
If the Spartans play defense like they did against Virginia (30-7), holding the Cavaliers to 35.1 percent shooting, the final score shouldn't be like it was five years ago.
"I thought our half-court defense in general was maybe one of the best," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I thought once we were in the half court, ours might have been as best as we have had in a long, long time, to be honest with you."
Virginia came into the game leading the nation in points allowed per game at 55.5. The Cavaliers did a credible job against Michigan State on that end of the court, they just couldn't score.
The Spartans held the Cavaliers to 35.1 percent shooting (20 of 57), well off the 45.7 percent they shot during the season and nowhere near the 54.3 percent they shot in the two NCAA tournament games.
"I think I definitely have to credit their defense," Virginia's Malcolm Brogdon said. "They have a lot of good athletes. They contest shots. But we also missed some easy layups inside for sure. But I can't take away from their defense."
Branden Dawson had 24 points and 10 rebounds for Michigan State and Adreian Payne added 16 points, including the 3-pointer with 1:29 left that gave the Spartans the lead for good at 54-51.
Dawson, who averages 11.0 points per game, has scored in double figures in six straight games and he had a career-high 26 points in the third-round win over Harvard. He missed nine games this season with a broken right hand, an injury he inflicted on himself when he hit a table while watching film.
"It was tough, being out for those nine games," Dawson said. "For me, just making the bad decision that I made, I learned from it a lot. That didn't stop me from coming in and working hard, and I think that being out for those nine games, I just told myself that my team needs me, and I just need to step up and be a man. And that's what I did."
Izzo called Dawson "a freak athlete," both in strength and athletic ability.
"He's not been a very good shooter. He's worked hard on it," Izzo said.
Joe Harris and Brogdon both had 17 points for Virginia, the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and tournament champion.
Connecticut rode the 27 points and 10 rebounds from DeAndre Daniels to the win over the Cyclones (28-7). He scored 19 points in the second half.
"DeAndre's a scorer, and once you feel that you have that confidence, the next shot's going to go in," said Shabazz Napier, Daniels' teammate and the American Athletic Conference player of the year. "We kept feeding him, and he got super hot."
Daniels was 10 of 15 from the field.
"With our seniors on this team, I just want them to go out with a bang," he said.
Dustin Hogue scored a career-high 34 points for Iowa State, but Big 12 player of the year Melvin Ejim was 3 of 13 for seven points, more than 11 below his average.
The Cyclones, in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2000, were playing their second game without third-leading scorer Georges Niang, who broke his foot in their tournament opener.
They trailed by 16 points with less than 7½ minutes to go, but nearly came all the way back behind Hogue's inside scoring.
"That's who these guys are, they're fighters," coach Fred Hoiberg said.
These were the first NCAA tournament games played at Madison Square Garden since 1961 and there was a sellout crowd of 19,314 on hand.
There may be a few more squeezed in on Sunday.