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Napier knows UConn in for 'dogfight' against Michigan State

Published 5:42 pm, Saturday, March 29, 2014
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NEW YORK -- The last UConn-Michigan State meeting, Kevin Ollie was coaching his first game and the Huskies were about to embark on a season that could not end in postseason play.

The seventh-seeded Huskies and No. 4 Spartans are not in Germany any more, and the stakes are much greater than an opening-season win Sunday afternoon in the NCAA's East Regional championship at Madison Square Garden (2:20 p.m. MSG). A trip to the Final Four in Dallas awaits the winner, and last year's 66-62 UConn win at Ramstein Air Base in Germany doesn't mean much right now.

"The biggest thing I think that is different from that first game against them, Michigan State that is, is the experience," UConn senior Shabazz Napier said. "We have been through a lot. We understand that this is definitely going to be another dogfight. We don't expect them to back down and I hope they don't expect us to back down.

"It's going to be a fight, and we're just hopeful that we'll be on top."

While the Huskies (29-8) have won three straight and five of six in the postseason, Michigan State (29-8) has yet to experience defeat in tournament play. The Spartans won three straight to capture the Big Ten tournament title, beating No. 12 Wisconsin in the semifinals and No. 8 Michigan in the title game. MSU also took out top seed Virginia 61-59 Friday night to reach its eighth Elite Eight. The Spartans are 6-1 in the game under coach Tom Izzo.

"I think the Big Ten tournament in general was kind of a shot in the arm for us," Izzo said. "We beat two potential one seeds, and I thought we played very well the whole weekend. I thought we found our identity, which was that we needed to defend better than we were defending."

The Spartans also had a chance to play together as a team, which was missing earlier in the season with senior guard Keith Appling (wrist) and forward Branden Dawson (right hand) injured. MSU got beat in the first game with everyone back, losing to Illinois 53-46, but have since won seven of eight.

"You have to get that chemistry back, get that timing back down and just get familiar with playing with the guys again," sophomore guard Gary Harris said.

The Spartans have looked quite comfortable of late, with 6-foot-10 senior Adreian Payne being a beast averaging 23 points and 5.7 rebounds in three NCAA games. Dawson, at 6-6, is averaging 20 points and nine rebounds, while Harris has averaged 11.3 points.

"It's all about toughness," UConn junior guard Ryan Boatright said. "That's their identity. They're going to come out and try to punk you. They're big down low. They got some strong guys on the floor. The guards are big. So it's all about toughness, mentally and physically."

One area of concern for Ollie is rebounding, which the Huskies were able to overcome in the last game against Michigan State despite giving up 20 offensive boards and a 15-1 second-chance points advantage. Dawson had eight offensive boards in the game.

"That's a tough job creating, trying to find matchups for those guys," Ollie said. "First you got to play hard, you got to do your work early. You can't let them establish low post position. So we want to do our work early. We want to be aggressive, if we decide to trap, and we want to limit them to no second-chance points. Branden Dawson does a wonderful job getting second-chance points, and we can't let them do that and get easy buckets."

wpaxton@ctpost.com; http://blog.ctnews.com/uconnbasketball