NEW YORK — His team was trailing Michigan State by 9 points with 16:33 remaining in Sunday’s East Regional championship game at Madison Square Garden. Sensing the game was starting to slip away, Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie shot a stern look at his floor leader, Shabazz Napier.
Without saying a word, Ollie managed to convey a message. It was time for Napier to seize the moment.
“They made their run and it was time for us to make ours,’’ said Napier, a 6-foot-1-inch senior from Roxbury, Mass. “And when Coach looks at me a certain way, I just know that I’ve got to be more aggressive, and I’ve got to [hit] open shots when my teammates get me the ball, and we just kept running.’’
Napier drained a 3-pointer with 16:14 to go, triggering a 12-0 run that enabled the seventh-seeded Huskies to secure the fifth Final Four appearance in school history with a 60-54 victory over the fourth-seeded Spartans before a crowd of 19,499.
“It was just an amazing feeling to do it in Madison Square Garden, and for the NCAA not to be here for  years and then we come out and we win it, it just puts a great bow on this gift,’’ said Ollie, who took his team on a tour of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, site of the Final Four, during a side trip between games this season at Houston and Southern Methodist.
Now the Huskies (30-8) return to the Lone Star State, where UConn won the last two of its three NCAA championships, in San Antonio in 2004 and Houston in 2011. The Huskies will face Florida (36-2), the South Regional champion and tourney’s sole remaining top seed, in a rematch of a regular-season meeting Dec. 2 at Gampel Pavilion, where UConn scored a 65-64 victory.
“We play a great Florida team and we’re going to be well prepared because I know about these guys’ heart,’’ said Ollie, whose team was the last to beat the Gators before they reeled off 30 in a row to make it to the Final Four. “That’s what got us through, it was a heart of a champion, heart of a lion, and I love these guys.’’
Napier, the American Athletic Conference player of the year, was named the regional’s most outstanding player after he scored a game-high 25 points against Michigan State, including 4 of 9 3-pointers. Napier was joined on the all-regional team by teammate DeAndre Daniels, who chipped in 12 points and eight rebounds.
Napier was also 9 for 9 from the foul line, where UConn made 21 of 22 overall, hitting all 18 attempts in the second half. The Huskies finished 41 of 44 in the regional semifinals and final.
But none were bigger than the three Napier hit after inducing Keith Appling to commit his fifth personal foul with 31 seconds left and UConn holding a 53-51 lead.
“He thought I was going to penetrate, but I felt like it was an open shot, and I was fortunate enough to take the shot and he fouled me,’’ Napier said. “So I just stepped to the free throw line and just knocked the free throws down.’’
Napier was not going to be denied, not even after he departed with a bloody nose after being smacked in the face while guarding Gary Harris. To add insult to injury, Napier was called for his second foul.
“His will to win, you could just see it,’’ said Harris, who led the Spartans (29-9) with 22 points. “He wasn’t going to let his team lose. He was the one making the big plays for them at the end of the stretch, and that’s why he’s such a great player. You could just see by playing against him, he’s a winner and he willed his team to victory.’’
Napier helped the Huskies weather a rough patch at the end of the first half, in which UConn shot 8 for 29 from the field. The Huskies made just three of their last 21 shots, allowing the Spartans to go on a 9-0 run for a 25-21 halftime lead.
The Huskies doubled the post and neutralized the touches for Adreian Payne (13 points, 9 rebounds) and Branden Dawson (5 points, 8 rebounds) and forced Michigan State to commit 16 turnovers that led to 18 points.
But when Michigan State opened the second half by surging to a 32-23 lead on Payne’s perimeter jumper, that’s when Ollie shot Napier the look.
During postgame ceremonies, Ollie looked again at his point guard as he ascended a ladder to snip the nets. This one needed no translation as the UConn coach beamed with pride.
“I was kind of flustered, I didn’t know what was going on, man,’’ Napier said when asked to describe the feeling he had climbing the ladder. “The way we got here, the path we took, the work we put in, to be stepping up that ladder, it felt special. To see my teammates do it as well, it was a special moment.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.