By AARON BEARD
AP Basketball Writer
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas (AP) — Michigan State followed a thrilling last-second win by blowing a big lead against a worn-down opponent and finding itself trailing late in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans advanced anyway with toughness and tenacity in the game’s critical moments for the second straight day.
A.J. Hoggard hit the go-ahead free throws with 30.3 seconds left and Michigan State scored the final nine points to push past No. 22 Connecticut 64-60 in Thursday’s semifinals, earning a trip to Friday’s championship game.
“It’s something Coach has harped on us from the very beginning: just make the winning plays,” said Malik Hall, who had a big late steal and two free throws. “It’s something he’s been talking about since yesterday and the day before that.”
At the least, Izzo will have another set of examples in making that point again.
It was another tense finish for both teams after their first-round games had plenty of late-game drama — including two extra periods for the Huskies in a draining 115-109 win against No. 19 Auburn. But Michigan State did enough to take back momentum after the Huskies had gone up 60-55 with 1:41 left.
The Spartans (5-1) held the Huskies to 1-for-9 shooting in the final 3 minutes. The final stop came with the Huskies (5-1) getting a chance to tie. But after a long stretch of dribbling, Jalen Gaffney fired up a tough straightaway 3 that fell short of everything.
Tyson Walker hit a clinching free throw with 2.5 seconds left, sending the Spartans skipping into the tunnel and waving their arms along the way to their celebrating fans behind their bench.
Gabe Brown scored 16 points to lead the Spartans, who led 32-18 before halftime and shot just 32% after the break.
Adama Sonogo had 18 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Huskies, while Tyrese Martin added 16 points and 12 boards despite being uncertain to play because of a sprained left wrist suffered in the Auburn win. The Huskies made just 2 of 16 3-pointers after making 15 of 26 in the Auburn win.
“We made some execution mistakes down the stretch in the game,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “It wasn’t a lack of effort. It wasn’t a lack of guys giving their best. Michigan State’s really, really good and we blew it.”
UConn: Wednesday’s 115-109 win against the Tigers was a March-esque thriller, but regrouping from it to play again in less than 24 hours was a major challenge. It didn’t help that UConn didn’t have forward Isaiah Whaley, who sat out after fainting briefly following a 43-minute effort in the Auburn game.
“We knew what it was before we even came to this game,” Martin said. “We knew we had to take care of our bodies. Every team had to play three games in three days, so we can’t sit here and use that as an excuse.
“Yes it was a slow start, we ended up rallying back. But we just weren’t tough enough at the end” to win.
Michigan State: The Spartans needed an alley-oop dunk by Marcus Bingham Jr. with 3.4 seconds left to beat Loyola Chicago. This time, they overcame the Huskies’ second-half surge for another tight win against an NCAA Tournament team from last season.
Brown had a testy second-half moment with one of his teammates.
Brown fouled Martin on a transition dunk as UConn went up 55-48, then stood — fists clenched — glaring toward Bingham as they began to head back to the huddle. He called out for him a few times as he pursued, then shoved Bingham with two hands as he got back to the huddle.
Brown said the subject of the disagreement was Bingham’s shot selection on an air-balled jumper a possession earlier.
“Every time he goes to the middle, he can score,” Brown said. “That’s what Coach harps on. So when he took that shot, I was heated.”
“I was loving it,” Izzo added.
UConn point guard R.J. Cole had 10 points before fouling out on Hoggard’s drive with 30.3 seconds left. Hurley was furious from across the court and let the officials have it, thinking that Cole had gotten enough ball for a tie-up call.
“That’s a tough call,” Hurley said, adding: “I mean, we lost because we made a lot of mistakes, Michigan State did not. They made the plays.”
UConn: The Huskies will play in Friday’s third-place game against the VCU-Baylor loser.
Michigan State: The Spartans advanced to Friday’s championship game to face the VCU-Baylor winner.
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