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NCAA East Regional: UConn takes bite out of the Big Apple

by Kevin Kelly
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Kevin Kelly | WFUV Sports

MSG provides perfect location for UConn's regional championship

Four teams took a bite out of the Big Apple this past weekend, but only one was able to finish it and throw away the core.

UConn, Michigan State, Viriginia, and Iowa State all came to play at Madison Square Garden for the 2014 NCAA Tournament East Regional. However, it was the UConn Huskies who emerged victorious and earned a trip to the Final Four with a 60-54 win over Michigan State in the Regional Final on Sunday afternoon.

Playing at the Garden was a major home court advantage for the seventh seeded Huskies in both of their games this weekend.

"Yeah it's kind of unfair," UConn star Shabazz Napier said. "We always say it's like our third home so we feel real comfortable here. I'm glad we're not too far away from Madison Square Garden."

Even though the fans helped create a raucous atmosphere in "The World's Most Famous Arena," UConn Head Coach Kevin Ollie put the emphasis on his players.

"At the end of the day, we're playing against Michigan State," Ollie said. "Fans can't come down and stick Adreian Payne, fans can't box out Branden Dawson, but they do give us the energy when we get down."

Free throws were also huge for the Huskies as they went a total of 41 for 44 from the charity stripe over the weekend. They were 18 for 18 in the second half against Michigan State and Napier's mom, Carmen Velasquez, knew they had it in the bag.

"I looked up, the free throw percentage was 93 and I said we got this, we're fine, we're not missing these free throws," Velasquez said.

The last big piece of the puzzle, other than Shabazz continuing his strong play (25 points in 37 minutes), was defensive pressure. The Huskies forced 16 Michigan State turnovers and guard Ryan Boatright felt his pressure on the Spartans' ball handlers helped the team.

"They tell me all the time that I'm a defensive stopper for the point guards so I take pride in my defense," Boatright said. "Even if I can't pick a steal, just turning them and turning them and getting them uncomfortable so they can't run their offense so smoothly… helps the team."

The Spartans were at least able to win once at MSG this weekend after some troubles in New York as of late. On Friday they beat #1 seed Virginia in a hard-fought game just to get the chance to play UConn for a trip to the Final Four.

Unfortunately for the Spartans, the crowd at MSG wasn't in their favor all weekend. The Virginia fans were louder and outnumbered the Michigan State fans by a decent margin on Friday and on Sunday the UConn fans probably outnumbered the Spartans fans 3 to 1.

Prior to Friday night, there hadn't been an NCAA Tournament game in the Garden since 1961 and it was UConn who managed to come out on top in a place they know very well.

Michigan State certainly won't feel alone as Iowa State couldn't manage against the Huskies and their fans on Friday night either. The third seeded Cyclones just couldn't get over the loss of Georges Niang to a foot injury in the second round. Iowa State Head Coach Fred Hoiberg shared how important Niang was to the team before their game on Friday.

"Every game I have a play card where I draw plays that I think will expose the team we're playing against," Hoiberg said. "One side of the card is DeAndre and then the other side is Georges… so to have to throw out half of what we do and who we run it through is an adjustment."

No one seemed to see this UConn team making a run like they have, but it appears they have at least temporarily helped to silence doubters of the new American Athletic Conference.

The Huskies will be headed to North Texas to take on Florida in the Final Four on Saturday.

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