NEW YORK — It's one thing to have a majority of the fans rooting for you. It's another to truly have a home court advantage, to feel at home in a building.
The Huskies worked the Big Room like they owned it Friday night, as if they knew every dead spot on the hardwood floor, every nuance of the rims. And when they were done hitting shots at a dazzling clip, 52 percent in both halves, and holding off a furious Iowa State comeback attempt, they had sent another higher-rated team to pack for home.
DeAndre Daniels had 27 points and 10 rebounds, leading the UConn men to an 81-76 victory over Iowa State at Madison Square Garden. It's now on to the NCAA's East Regional final, the Elite Eight for the 11th time in school history, to play Virginia or Michigan State on Sunday at 2:20 p.m.
Let this sink in: The Huskies are 40 minutes from the Final Four, to be played in Arlington, Texas, next weekend.
"It felt like a home game," said Shabazz Napier, who scored 19 points, getting the Huskies off to a torrid start with four three-point goals. "We just feel like Madison Square Garden is kind of our third home, Gampel being the first and XL being the second. And with our fans behind us, cheering for us whether we're up by ten or down by five, we feel like we always have a chance."
"With every game you win, you realize the closer you are. … We're blessed to be in this position."
Two years ago, Iowa State eliminated UConn from the NCAA Tournament in what proved to be coach Jim Calhoun's last game. The Huskies, under Kevin Ollie, began this tournament as the No. 7 seed in the East and went to overtime to defeat 10th-seeded St. Joseph's. But now they have knocked off No. 2 Villanova and No. 3 Iowa State, with Calhoun watching from behind the Huskies' bench in a building in which he led UConn to an NIT title and six Big East tournament championships.
"He's passed me the baton, and I'm just trying to run with it the best way I know how," Ollie said, "and the best way I do know how is to keep our team together, keep us fighting, no matter what situation we're in, negative, positive, we're going to always see the bright light. And that light is shining bright now and we got to keep it shining. Hopefully, we can play another 40 full [minutes of] UConn style basketball, and hopefully we can get to Texas."
Ryan Boatright scored 16 as UConn's marquee players dominated, perhaps the best game all three have ever played together. The Huskies made 7 of their first 10 three-point shots, Napier hitting his first four, to build a solid lead, disrupting anything and everything the Cyclones tried to do offensively in the first half.
"We let a lot of things bother us in the first half that didn't bother us all year," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.
Daniels then took over the game in the second half, scoring nine points in a span of 5:43, and the Huskies pulled away, leading by 17, then had to fight off an Iowa State run. Although Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane, the Cyclones' top players, were largely shut down, a combined 9-for-31, Dustin Hogue went crazy, scoring 34 points, most of that in the paint.
Iowa State, 9-for-29 in the first half, found its usual, fast-paced offense in the final 15 minutes and nearly took it away, hitting 23 of 40 shots in the second half. "We went down swinging," Hoiberg said.
Kane's three-pointer cut UConn's lead to seven points with 4:35 to go, and the Huskies were going to have to hold on tight, as they have had to do many times this season.
"That's an advantage of having two point guards that can handle the ball," Boatright said. "And Terrence [Samuel] coming off the bench and stepping up like he is, it's just an advantage."
Two offensive fouls against Napier helped tip the momentum further, and Monte Morris hit a three to make it a four-point game. But Niels Giffey, off an assist from Boatright, hit an enormously important three to stabilize it. "That was just a bounce-back for us," Giffey said. "They were pounding us inside, and we had a small lineup out there."
Napier made two from the line with 47 seconds left, and UConn was 20-for-22 from the line, able to close it out from there. Samuel, the freshman from Brooklyn, scored 10 points, including several critical shots down the stretch.
The Huskies came out playing free and confident, and started hitting shots from all over the place — but especially three-point shots. They made 7 of 12 from that range in the first half to open a 10-point lead.
Napier hit the first one, to give UConn a 5-3 lead, and the Huskies, who led thereafter, brought the pressure to disrupt Iowa State's transition offense. The full house was at least 60 percent for UConn, and the Huskies were feeding off it.
"It was tremendous," Boatright said. "Just being out there with that crowd and with that UConn Nation behind you, when you're tired or you just feel like you're dead, that intensity and that cheering, it helps you get to those loose balls, those 50-50 balls or those rebounds that you need."
UConn was 14-for-27 from the floor in the first half. UConn held a 19-17 edge in rebounds.
In the second half, Daniels came out with a smoking hot hand.
"Daniels was unbelievable," Hoiberg said. "Give Kevin credit for continuing to feed the hot hand."
Said Daniels: "It never would have been possible if not for my teammates looking for me and the coaches putting me in the right position."
Then it was "buckle up" time. Iowa State kept coming, but the Huskies (29-8) were not fazed.
"If you don't give up in the dark times, it will reverse, the wind will start going in your favor, in your direction, and I think that's what's happened now," Ollie said. "It's a shift, these guys are playing very, very well together. And they're fighters. And when you fight, you don't get on the ropes, you stay in the middle of the ring and you keep fighting and keep throwing punches, and I think that's what they're doing. And we're 40 minutes away from a goal that they set."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun