DETROIT — Laid low by the economic crisis, the state of Michigan desperately needed something to rally around. Michigan State players were more than happy to oblige.
The Spartans took on the personality and the cause of the Motor City as the hometown favorite in the NCAA semifinals.
They revved up their engines and raced past Connecticut for an 82-73 win to advance to Monday's NCAA championship game against North Carolina.
"I do know some people who have had hard times, who have been laid off from their jobs," said Kalin Lucas, who led the Spartans with 21 points. "In Detroit, it is hard times in Detroit. We just came out tonight and played aggressive and just ran them. That's what we wanted to do."
Raymar Morgan broke out of his late-season slump and added 18 points.
After running circles around Connecticut, Michigan State (31-6) will be the first team to play in the NCAA championship in its home state since Duke lost to Arkansas in Charlotte in 1994.
And what a home arena it is. Attendance at Ford Field, the home of the Detroit Lions, was listed at 72,456 — the largest in Final Four history — as the Spartans delivered energy to a state and a city down on their luck as the home of a failing auto industry.
Before the game Saturday night, Coach Tom Izzo drove through some tough neighborhoods and thought about his philosophy that sports can be more than a game, that it can inspire and uplift people.
"We are the blue-collar team and this is the blue-collar city, and it was amazing, amazing to walk out of that tunnel ... it was an incredible setting," Izzo said after the game. "I hope that we were a ray of sunshine and distraction for them ... and we're not done yet."
With 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet and 6-7, 247-pound bruiser Jeff Adrien, Connecticut (31-5) had size and bulk in the post that it seemed even Michigan State couldn't match. So the Spartans found other ways to win.
When Connecticut's guards did a poor job getting back in transition, the Spartans hit them for fast-break baskets.
"We kind of wore them into the ground," Izzo said.
Consecutive breakaway layups by Lucas and Chris Allen staggered the Huskies (31-5), giving Michigan State the lead for good early in the second half.
Durrell Summers, a Detroit native who experienced firsthand the hardships his city and state are enduring when both parents were laid off, ran out for a soaring, one-handed dunk over Stanley Robinson and a clinching three-point play as Michigan State outscored Connecticut 12-2 on the fast break in the second half.
In a CBS interview that also blared over the loudspeakers in the arena minutes after the game, Izzo chirped a thank you to Detroit and said he would see the fans again Monday. Later, Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun marveled at the job Izzo and the Spartans have done putting the city and the auto industry on their backs.
Tar Heels top Villanova
In a classic case of men vs. boys, North Carolina never gave Villanova much chance to breathe, let alone whip up a fresh dose of Final Four magic.
Ty Lawson scored 22 points, Wayne Ellington had 20 more, and the Tar Heels, with their four, five, maybe more NBA-caliber players, eased to an 83-69 win over the plucky but overmatched Wildcats.
Tyler Hansbrough had 18 points and 11 rebounds to mark a successful return to the Final Four after a dud last year in a semifinal loss to Kansas. The Tar Heels trailed Kansas 40-12 midway through the first half. This time, they led 40-23.
North Carolina (33-4) goes for its second title in five years Monday against Michigan State.
The Spartans will have the crowd on their side. The talent gap, though? Eek. They'll have to be at least 35 points better than they were in December when the teams met in this same building — a 98-63 UNC romp.
Villanova (30-8) ends a successful season two wins short of its first title since 1985, when Rollie Massimino coaxed one of the greatest upsets in sports history — 66-64 over Patrick Ewing, John Thompson and Georgetown in Rupp Arena.
Nancy Armour and Eddie Pells of The Associated Press contributed to this report.