DETROIT — Raymar Morgan grinned and lifted his right arm high in the air, saluting a stadium filled with Michigan State fans with a little wave.
The Spartans promised their downtrodden state something good, and boy, did they deliver.
Morgan broke out of his late-season slump with 18 points, Kalin Lucas added 21 and the smaller Spartans ran roughshod over Hasheem Thabeet and Connecticut in an 82-73 upset in the Final Four on Saturday night. The Spartans will play the winner of Villanova-North Carolina for the NCAA title Monday night, a much-needed boost for a city and state hit harder than most by the economic crisis.
It's Michigan State's first appearance in the title game since 2000, when the Spartans won their second title.
How's this for some karma? Magic Johnson, Spartan-in-chief since leading Michigan State to its first title in 1979, will present the game ball before Monday's title game along with Larry Bird.
"Detroit's been unbelievable to us," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "We've had some great games here, and the best is yet to come."
Flashbulbs were popping as the final seconds ticked down. After shaking hands with the UConn players, the Spartans went to center court and saluted the crowd of 72,456, the largest-ever for a Final Four, about two-thirds of which were wearing green.
The loss is the latest blow for UConn, the best team in the country until Jerome Dyson went down with a knee injury in mid-February. The Huskies have been dealing with distractions since last May, when coach Jim Calhoun was diagnosed with his third bout with cancer, and are now facing questions about alleged recruiting violations.
The loss snapped Calhoun and Connecticut's perfect run in the Final Four. They'd made it twice before — 1999 and 2004 — and went on to win the title each time.
The UConn players walked slowly off the court, looking shell-shocked that their season had ended.
This was expected to be a battle of big men. UConn's Thabeet had been a one-man swat team, averaging a double-double and winning defensive player of the year in the burly Big East for a second straight year. Michigan State's Goran Suton led the equally gritty Big Ten in rebounding and had averaged a double-double in the NCAA tournament.
But the matchup never developed, with neither a factor. Izzo had said all week the Spartans planned to make the game a sprint to keep Thabeet out of his comfort zone. The 7-foot-3 junior certainly couldn't keep up. He looked gassed from the opening tipoff, leaning over, tugging on his shorts and gasping for air not even six minutes into the game.
He finished with 17 points and six rebounds. Suton, who had the main job of corralling Thabeet, didn't score his first field goal until early in the second half and finished with four points and seven boards.
Stanley Robinson and A.J. Price had 15 each for Connecticut, and Robinson added 13 rebounds.
Morgan was Michigan State's best player early on, but he's struggled to find his groove since missing three games in February with walking pneumonia. He had just seven points in Michigan State's last three games — that's combined — and was 0-for-2 in the big win over Louisville in the Midwest Regional final. Granted, he's playing with a broken nose and a plastic mask, but Izzo has been all over him to be more aggressive.
Apparently, he finally got the message. He scored 11 in the first half, including a couple of big buckets when UConn was threatening to take off. And it was his strip of Craig Austrie that started an 8-2 run midway through the second half that caught UConn flat-footed, all but ended the game and threatened to bring down the roof at Ford Field.
Morgan stripped Austrie and dished to Draymond Green, who lumbered down the floor for an easy layup. Austrie missed a shot at the other end. Lucas — generously listed at 6-feet — grabbed the rebound and sprinted upcourt, splitting two Connecticut defenders with a shake-and-shimmy that gave him a wide-open layup. Wide open because those two defenders didn't have any help. Thabeet didn't even bother to run up the court to play defense, gasping for air with his hands on his hips.
After another Huskies miss, Morgan grabbed the rebound and fired it to Allen, who scored on a finger roll to give Michigan State a 53-49 lead.
The ball had barely dropped through the net when Calhoun barked for a timeout, and the Michigan State fans erupted. If Calhoun hoped the break would re-energize his team, he was wrong.
Green made a jumper, Durrell Summers a 3 and Green converted a pair of free throws. After Price missed a jumper, Green made his own from the top of the key to give Michigan State a 72-54 lead with 7:52 to play. He and Lucas slapped hands as the crowd roared.
UConn did manage to get within 3 with a minute to go, but the outcome was never really in doubt and Summers converted a 3-point play to put the game out of reach.
For all that's been made of Connecticut's defense, Michigan State is just as stingy, and it made for a physical first half. Things got a little out of hand near the end when Jeff Adrien and Travis Walton got tangled up under Connecticut's basket. Their arms appeared to lock, and Adrien might have added some extra oomph as he tried to shed Walton. The guard fell hard to the floor, and Thabeet and Gray quickly got in each other's faces.
There was some pushing and shoving, prompting Calhoun to come all the way from the other end of the floor to calm his players. But the dust-up fizzled quickly and no technicals were even called.