March Madness 2014: What they're saying after Friday's Sweet 16 nail-biters – The Star-Ledger

Four games were decided by a combined 14 points Friday night as the last four seats in the Elite Eight were filled. Here are the hot topics that emerged after another thrilling night of March Madness:

Kentucky and Michigan State prevail in double-barreled nightcap 

Remote controls across the nation were put through their paces Friday night as two games went down to the wire at the same time. In the end, Kentucky topped Louisville, 74-69, and Michigan State knocked off No. 1 seed Virginia, 61-59.

The Spartans and Cavaliers played a predictably hard-fought, defensive game that resulted in the second No. 1 seed being bounced from the tournament. Both teams traded punches down the stretch, but Michigan State persevered despite a lengthy scoring slump at the beginning of the second half, writes’s Mike Griffith:

“Start of the second half, we had five or six turnovers in the first five or six minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “This team, I think learned through the adversity we dealt with, you’ve got to keep battling.

“The difference in the game was we survived that stretch. We beat a helluva team.”

Branden Dawson said Michigan State’s ability to pull together amid the adversity was the difference in the game.

“They went on that run, we never lost our poise,” Dawson said. “We didn’t point any fingers, we just stayed positive.”

Dawson again provided the spark Michigan State so desperately needed. After scoring 20 points just once in the Spartans’ first 35 games, Dawson has paced Michigan State in back-to-back games, scoring 26 points against Harvard and 24 more against Virginia.

NCAA Kentucky Louisville BasketballKentucky’s Alex Poythress and Aaron Harrison celebrate after an NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game against the Louisville Saturday, March 29, 2014, in Indianapolis. Kentucky won 74-69. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Meanwhile, in Friday night’s other late contest, Kentucky’s five starting freshmen proved themselves against the defending champion Cardinals. The Wildcats trailed for nearly the entire game before a go-ahead 3-pointer put them on top for good with 40 seconds remaining. 

Kentucky is on the same type of trajectory as it was in 2011 when it reached the Final Four with Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones.

Three years ago the Wildcats struggled throughout the SEC portion of the schedule and lost several games on the road but peaked during the NCAA Tournament when it played teams on a neutral court. The same thing is happening with this team. John Calipari’s squad has now beaten Wichita State and Louisville in back-to-back games and is one win away from reaching the Final Four for the third time in four years. That’s an incredible accomplishment considering how this team was struggling a few weeks ago.

With Elite Eight action happening this weekend, Kentucky will be hoping for a quick and favorable prognosis on sophomore big man Willie Cauley-Stein, who suffered an ankle injury early in Friday’s game and didn’t return.

NCAA Tennessee Michigan BasketballMichigan’s Nik Stauskas reacts after the second half of an NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game against the Tennessee Friday, March 28, 2014, in Indianapolis. Michigan won 73-71. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

Michigan, UConn hold on for Elite Eight bids

The Wolverines and Huskies stood up to furious comebacks in Friday’s early games but made enough plays late to extend their seasons. Michigan beat surging Tennessee, 73-71, and Connecticut outlasted Iowa State, 81-76.

“I’m out there throwing the ball, I can’t move, I’ve got this 6-foot-6 guy guarding me, it was difficult,” said Albrecht, who is just 5-foot-11. “Usually it’s not that bad if I can run. But I couldn’t run, and I was like ‘you’ve got to be kidding me.’ I don’t know what they were doing, they were baiting you into throwing a pass, and I didn’t want to burn a timeout.

“I made a few passes there that I’d like to take back.”

Tennessee capitalized on Michigan’s inbounding woes to trim the deficit to just one point with a chance to take the lead with 10 seconds remaining. In that moment, a matchup oft discussed leading up to the game presented itself, as Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes and Michigan’s Jordan Morgan took center stage. 

The play was the icing on the cake for Morgan, who silenced any doubters who gave Stokes the advantage heading into the game, writes’s Brendan F. Quinn:

Not only did Morgan drop 15 points and pull down seven rebounds on Friday night; he held Stokes to 11 points and six rebounds. The UT junior entered the night averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds in the Vols’ three previous NCAA tournament wins. 

In Connecticut’s victory over Iowa State, junior DeAndre Daniels outshone playmaking teammate Shabazz Napier, scoring 27 points and adding 10 rebounds. Seventeen of Daniels’ points came in the second half as the Huskies outlasted the Cyclones’ comeback bid. And while Napier is still Connecticut’s biggest star, Daniels has carved out a niche of his own, writes’s Jeff Borzello:

Make no mistake, Connecticut is Napier’s team. The senior guard was an All-American all season and is arguably the best player remaining in the NCAA Tournament. He’s capable of putting the Huskies on his back and carrying them to wins against good teams. But when Connecticut is at its best, Napier is getting help from his supporting cast – and that player is ideally Daniels.

He’s been the X-factor all season long for Connecticut, which can go both ways. Daniels has the potential to be the perfect second option to Napier, but he also has the tendency to disappear.

And Daniels has certainly had plenty of bad games this season. But he never got down after rough stretches, instead focusing on putting a subpar performance in the rearview mirror.

More NCAA tournament headlines:

  • A tale of two dunks:

Here, Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison finds James Young for a monstrous alley-oop:

Later, Louisville’s Russ Smith closes out his collegiate career with a poetic slam dunk attempt:

It wasn’t all bad for Smith on Friday, though:

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