By Neill Ostrout
ARLINGTON, Texas _ No one could beat Florida. That’s what the UConn basketball players heard.
UConn’s win over Florida in December? A fluke, the Huskies were told.
So what happened Saturday night at AT&T Stadium? Another fluke?
That’s one whale of a tale.
UConn beat Florida 63-53 before a record crowd of 79,444 just outside Dallas, snapping the top-ranked Gators’ 30-game win streak and advancing to Monday’s national championship game.
“We love each other and we believe in each other. Even if nobody believes in us, we believe in each other and our coaching staff,” UConn guard Ryan Boatright said. “We have a lot of heart and pride for this university.”
No one in a Husky jersey should be more proud of their play than Boatright should for his defense, unless it’s DeAndre Daniels for his offense.
Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead UConn (31-8). He said a chat with former UConn coach Jim Calhoun, which centered around other doubts about the Huskies’ chances this weekend.
“We talked Friday and he was telling me that nobody is paying attention to you,” said Daniels, who has scored in double figures in eight straight games and is averaging 17.6 points in the tournament. “I told him don’t worry about it. Everybody will pay attention to me after Saturday. I promised him.”
UConn will face Kentucky, a 74-73 winner over Wisconsin in Saturday’s second semifinal, in Monday night’s championship game.
Kevin Ollie is now headed to the national title game in his first season as a head coach. He is trying to lead UConn to its fourth championship, the second for the seniors on this team.
Florida (36-3), the tournament’s top overall seed and the winners of 30 straight games, hadn’t lost since a 65-64 defeat to these same Huskies Dec. 2.
UConn made 63.6 percent of its shots in the second half and 55.8 percent overall. The latter was the highest against the Gators this season.
Ryan Boatright scored 13 points, Shabazz Napier 12 and Niels Giffey 11 for UConn. The fact that the Huskies won despite Napier not having a monster offensive game may have dispelled the notion that they are a one-man team.
“I didn’t want to force anything. I wanted to get everybody else involved. I understood they were keying on me, which happens. I’m a point guard, so I want to share the ball as much as I can,” said Napier, who had six assists, four steals and attempted just six shots from the floor.
UConn becomes just the third team seeded No. 7 or lower to make the title game since the field expanded to 64 teams. Villanova made it as an 8 in 1985 and Butler as an 8 in 2011.
As solid as UConn was on offense, it was perhaps its defense that decided another game. Florida matched its season low in points and had just three assists, another season low, to go along with 11 turnovers.
“We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable. We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass,” Ollie said.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said the difference in his team’s performance from most of the season was his point guard’s ability to penetrate.
“The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” Donovan said. “Every time we needed a big shot or a big play, whether against Arkansas or UCLA, he was in the lane. He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright. He had a hard time getting around Napier, which inevitably made our offense very, very difficult.”
Patric Young led Florida with 19 points.
After a horrible start in which it fell behind 7-0 and 16-4, the Huskies somehow managed to storm back and take and three-point lead at the half.
UConn, which trailed by at least nine points in three of its first four games in the tournament, didn’t seem fazed after falling down by a dozen Saturday night.
“We understood that we came out a little lousy. But it’s a part of the game. We never got negative on anybody, we didn’t point any fingers. We just looked at each other and said ‘We have to step up our game,’ ” Napier said. “I don’t think we were too worried about anything.”
After scoring a measly four points in the game’s first 11 minutes and 12 seconds, the Huskies ran off 11 straight points in a blistering 1:43.
A trio of 3-pointers, including two from Daniels, highlighted the spurt, which pulled the Huskies within one point at 16-15.
Napier’s first points of the evening moments later, coupled with a three-point play from Giffey, gave UConn its first lead of the evening at 21-20.
After its hot start, Florida ended up making just eight of its 23 shots in the first half, and netted just six points over the final 10 minutes of the half.
The Huskies led 25-22 at halftime as Daniels led the charge with 10 points and six rebounds.
UConn then scored the first six points in the second half, going up 31-22 on a Napier 3-pointer. The Huskies had scored 27 of the last 33 points in the game _ against one of the nation’s top defenses.
Although Young was able to have his way inside for much of the second half and the Husky big men continued to rack up fouls, the Gators couldn’t mount a successful charge.
They pulled within three on a pair of free throws by Young with 8:03 to go made it 43-40, but the Huskies scored eight of the game’s next nine points. Terrence Samuel started the spurt with a drive to the basket, Napier followed with a steal and flip to Boatright on the break, then Daniels caught a pair of lobs behind the Florida zone to make it 51-41.
That essentially sealed the Huskies’ win, and their usually steady hands at the free throw line didn’t fail them. UConn went 6-for-6 from the line down the stretch.
UConn is now 7-1 in games at the Final Four, including 5-0 in the state of Texas.
As he walked off the floor, Napier raised one finger toward the UConn fans, indicating he’d like his career to end with one more victory, one more fluke.
“Just simple,” Napier said in explanation, “one more to go.”