The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team took another step to its fourth NCAA title on Saturday with a 63-53 win over top-seeded Florida in a Final Four semifinal at AT&T Stadium before a crowd of nearly 80,000. Connecticut, seeded #7, now plays #8 seed Kentucky for this year’s championship on Monday at 9:10 p.m. on CBS and the UConn IMG Radio Network.
Kentucky was a 74-73 winner over Wisconsin in Saturday’s second semifinal.
Under second-year head coach Kevin Ollie, UConn is now 31-8 on the season, while the Gators end the year at 36-3.
The win by the Huskies ended Florida’s 30-game winning streak, which began after the Huskies beat the Gators 65-64 on Dec. 2 on a buzzer-beating jumper by senior guard Shabazz Napier.
Napier helped seal this game with about two minutes to play, when he made two free throws for a 59-47 lead. That margin was the deficit the Huskies faced in the opening minutes after a cold shooting start.
“We have been in a lot of dog fights,” Napier said. “We are just an experienced group. We believe in each other and continue to believe in each other. … We are going to win. That is what we do.”
The Huskies sidetracked the Florida offense by shutting down point guard Scottie Wilbekin and three-point specialist Michael Frazier II, who scored a combined seven points.
The Huskies were impressive on offense, shooting 55.8 percent (24 of 43) from the field against a team that allowed opponents to shoot 39.9 percent this season.
“Everybody was at Level 5 and that was the most important thing,” Ollie said. “Whomever I put in the game, it was positive and they were productive.”
Junior forward DeAndre Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds for Connecticut, and it was his two three-pointers in a span of 1:43 that helped ignite the Huskies after they had fallen behind 16-4.
“DeAndre was huge for us,” Ollie said. “He stepped up and really rebounded for us and was pretty much unstoppable.”
Daniels was nine of 14 from the field and played the entire game.
Napier, who leads the team in almost every category, didn’t dominate, but he finished with 12 points and six assists. He definitely got the better of Wilbekin in a matchup of senior point guards, both conference players of the year.
Florida had 11 turnovers and a season-low three assists.
“That’s crazy, that’s not usually what we do,” Wilbekin said. “All credit goes to them and their guards and the way they were denying and putting pressure on us.” Patric Young had 19 points for Florida, which had won all of its NCAA tournament games by at least 10 points. The Gators shot just 38.8 percent from the field (19 of 49), well below their 46.1 percent average.
“Unfortunately for us, I didn’t think it was one of our better games and I think Connecticut had a lot to do with that,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “We got off to a very, very good start in the game, and the reason we got off to a good start was our defense was very, very good. Once they got their defense set, I thought we had a hard time dealing with their pressure up top.”
Florida’s defense – which was third in the nation – was suffocating early, and the Gators took a 16-4 lead with a 7-0 run that was capped by a drive by Wilbekin with 9:47 to play.
The Huskies suddenly found their shooting touch. Connecticut made four straight shots, and three of them were from beyond the 3-point line – two by Daniels and another by junior guard Ryan Boatright. A three by Napier brought Connecticut to 20-18, and a three-point play by senior forward Niels Giffey gave the Huskies their first lead of the game, 21-20 with 3:18 left in the half. They never trailed again.
In the second half, the Huskies stretched the lead to 37-27 with 13:10 left, after a Boatright driving layup. They fought off every rally by Florida, which cut it to 43-40 with 8:03 left but never threatened again.