The 2012 Armed Forces Classic kicked off in Ramstein, Germany on Friday night, as the No. 14 Michigan State Spartans fell behind early and couldn't overcome a spirited performance by the Connecticut Huskies in a 66-62 loss.
Held in Hangar 5 of the Ramstein Air Base, both teams sported camouflage uniforms in support of the United States military. The 3,100 seats were filled to the brim, and the active military personnel were more than happy to be on hand for two of college basketball's premier programs.
When these two teams meet, national-championship implications are usually on the line. Neither team figures to be a favorite for the Final Four right now, but here's an interesting stat from ESPN's Stats and Information Twitter handle:
UConn and Michigan St have met 3 times in the regular season since 1998. The winner of each game has won the NCAA title that year.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) November 9, 2012
It was a battle of the point guards in this one. Michigan State's Keith Appling and UConn's Shabazz Napier, each their respective team's leading scorers, paved the way for their squads. Appling also finished with a game high in assists.
Napier finished with 25 points and two assists, while Appling had 17 points and five assists for the Spartans. Ryan Boatright added 13 for the Huskies, playing through an ankle injury that looked nasty at first sight.
UConn took an early double-digit lead behind a shooting onslaught and some tough basketball against the more highly touted frontcourt of the Spartans.
As local TV personality George Colli noted, new head coach Kevin Ollie made sure his team was ready to play despite the time difference and potential risk of jet lag:
Kevin Ollie promised this UConn team would play hard... If first 7mins are any indication, he meant it #UConn
— George Colli (@GeorgeColli) November 9, 2012
But Michigan State fought back in the second half, outscoring the Huskies in the first part of the frame to make things interesting. At the end of the game, the Spartans just couldn't overcome a 39-percent shooting mark against the Huskies.
It got as close as 62-60, but Michigan State couldn't hit the big shot down the stretch to force overtime or win the game outright. Freshman Gary Harris had good looks at three-pointers that didn't go, and a last-ditch effort by Appling was unsuccessful before the game was decided at the free-throw line.
It marks the first win for Ollie as head coach at his alma mater. Ollie took over for Jim Calhoun this offseason after the legendary coach announced he was leaving his post for good.
His team showed resilience down the stretch and matched everything longtime Spartan coach Tom Izzo threw its way. Every time the Spartans made a second-half run, the Huskies managed to find an answer of their own.
Both teams have quick turnarounds and will return to the States without much time to regroup. Michigan State gets national-powerhouse Kansas on Tuesday at the Champions Classic, while UConn will take on Vermont at home that same night.
Ethan Grant is a featured columnist for B/R's Breaking News Team.