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Connecticut rallies past Florida into title game

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Connecticut proved its early season victory over top-ranked Florida was not a fluke by punching its ticket to the national championship game with a 63-53 victory over the Gators on Saturday in the Final Four.

The Huskies (31-8) rallied from an early 12-point deficit to upend the only No. 1 seed to reach the semifinals. UConn did it with poise and execution before a packed AT&T Stadium.

“Everybody was at a level five and that was the most important thing,” Connecticut’s second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. “Whomever I put in the game, it was positive and they were productive. We want to be positive and productive when we are out on the court.

“I told you they are fighters, so when we get down, we keep fighting and keep believing in each other.”

The Huskies will face the Wisconsin-Kentucky winner on Monday for the national title. UConn will be playing for its fourth championship and its first under Ollie.

The Gators (36-3) were bidding to get back to the national championship game for the first time since their second of two consecutive titles in 2007. Two of Florida’s losses this season came at the hands of Connecticut, which also won 65-64 on Dec. 2. The Gators had won 30 in a row since then.

UConn forward DeAndre Daniels repeatedly got behind Florida’s defense for layups in the second half as the Huskies took control of the game. Daniels finished with a game-high 20 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field and grabbed 10 rebounds.

“I’m really glad I stepped up,” Daniels said. “Really, everyone stepped up. We wanted to prove everybody wrong because no one gave us a shot to win this game.”

All-American guard Shabazz Napier added 12 points and six assists for the Huskies. Guard Ryan Boatright scored 13 points and forward Niels Griffey added 11.

UConn shredded the vaunted Florida defense, shooting 55.8 percent from the field (24 of 43) while controlling the tempo in the second half.

Florida’s balance — a virtue throughout the season — did not come through when it mattered most. Center Patric Young scored 19 points and forward Casey Prather had 15, but senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, the SEC Player of Year, had more turnovers (3) than made baskets (2) and scored just four points.

“Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he could all year for us,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He had a really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright and he couldn’t get around Napier. He couldn’t get off screens because their speed and quickness didn’t allow him to.”

The Gators shot just 38.8 percent (19-49) for the game and were outscored 36-24 in the paint.

“We couldn’t really get anything going,” Wilbekin said. “They were being really aggressive. We couldn’t really get into our offense ad we couldn’t move the ball as well. A couple of us were having bad shooting nights. The shots that we did get, we couldn’t get them to fall.”

The Huskies began the second half where they left off in the first, scoring the first six points to take a 31-22 lead. Down as many as 10 (37-27), the Gators got back into it with an 8-2 spurt capped by Young’s jump hook. The Huskies responded, however, and had the lead back into double digits down the stretch.

Florida jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead to start the game, prompting Ollie to call for a timeout.

The stoppage did not settle the Huskies as the Gators kept the pressure on, especially on the defensive end as Connecticut struggled to get good looks. Florida dominated the boards at both ends in taking a 16-4 lead midway through the half.

The Huskies finally caught fire and began getting stops, reeling off an 11-0 run that prompted a timeout from Donovan. UConn nailed three 3-pointers during the spurt, including two from Daniels.

Giffey’s three-point play with 3:18 left in the half gave the Huskies their first lead of the game at 21-20. The Huskies took a 25-22 lead into halftime, with Daniels leading all scorers with 10 points.

After a slow start, UConn shot 47.6 percent (10-21) in the first half. The Gators cooled off considerably, dipping to 34.8 percent

Up to the minute news and reports from the news wire of The Sports Xchange.

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NCAA News Wire

Wisconsin earns top seed after conference tournament win

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CHICAGO — The Wisconsin Badgers earned a historic NCAA top seed Sunday, but their approach going forward will be strictly business as usual.

Wisconsin (31-3) beat Michigan State 80-69 in overtime in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament title game to complete a championship sweep and were rewarded with the first No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed in program history.

“I’m sure it will sink in,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “What we need right now is to get these guys back (home). We have class tomorrow, some of these guys have tests, they’ve got midterms this week. So it will be business as usual for our student-athletes.”

But players like forward Frank Kaminsky, the Big Ten tournament most outstanding player, are pretty pumped up.

“It’s awesome,” Kaminsky said. “First No. 1 seed in program history. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself, but we have a lot of goals and aspirations in the NCAA Tournament. So we’re going to prepare for our first game and be ready we tip the ball up.”

No. 6 ranked Wisconsin, the league’s regular-season champion, claimed the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA berth with the overtime win at the United Center and meets No. 16 Coastal Carolina (24-9) in Friday’s West Region opener in Omaha, Neb.

The overtime outcome was the first in Big Ten tournament history.

Michigan State (23-11) is also tourney bound with a No. 7 seed in the East Region. The Spartans will face Georgia, which is the 10th seed, on Friday in Charlotte, N.C.

Ryan was initially at a loss for words after the Badgers’ dramatic come-from-behind win.

“I’m speechless and that’s hard to do,” he said. “It was the fight in this group, and to do what they did when it seemed like Michigan State couldn’t do anything wrong. I just hope we have something left in us come NCAA Tournament time.”

The Badgers rallied from an 11-point second-half deficit and back into contention late in the game. They then scored 11 unanswered points in overtime behind seven points form forward Nigel Hayes.

Hayes closed with a game-high 25 points and was 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kaminsky had 19, guard Bronson Koenig finished with 18 while reserve forward Duje Dukan added 11.

Michigan State, making its third title game appearance in four years, was led by forward Branden Dawson and guard Denzel Valentine with 16 apiece while reserve guard Bryn Forbes had 10.

“I thought we played one of the greatest games we’ve ever played for 32, 32 and one-half minutes or 35, 36 minutes,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “And then we made a couple of mistakes and they made a couple of great shots and that’s the way the game goes.”

Wisconsin trailed 57-46 in the second half when Koenig launched a comeback with a 3-pointer and added another with 4:19 left to give the Badgers a temporary 60-59 lead.

“We were down eleven and they thought they had it in the bag,” Koenig said. “But I kept reminding my teammates that we were never going to give up.”

Guard Lourawls Nairn’s 3-pointer then put Michigan State up 62-60 as the teams exchanged leads three times and tied four times. The last in regulation came on Koenig’s two free throws for a 69-69 deadlock.

A potential game-winning shot by Dawson rolled in and out as regulation time expired.

In the first half, Michigan State outscored Wisconsin 10-5 in the final 3:25 for a 32-31 halftime lead after a half that saw with seven lead changes and five ties. The Spartans opened a 32-28 lead after a turnover by Koenig and a rebound put back by forward Marvin Clark with 25 seconds showing. But Wisconsin narrowed the deficit to 32-31 as Kaminsky hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer.

It was the Badger’s fifth successful shot from beyond the arc in the half. Wisconsin ended 13-of-26 (50 percent) on 3-point shooting for the game.

NOTES: Sunday’s game was tied 13 times and had 14 lead changes. … The Badgers claimed a 68-61 win in March in the long regular season meeting behind F Frank Kaminsky’s season-high 31 points. … The Badgers’ two previous Big Ten tournament titles came in wins over Illinois in 2004 and 2008. … Wisconsin’s 31 wins match an all-time

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SMU outmuscles Connecticut to take AAC title

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HARTFORD, Conn. — After a crushing omission from the NCAA Tournament last season, the 20th-ranked Southern Methodist Mustangs didn’t have any worries during this year’s Selection Show. They are dancing for the first time since 1993.

SMU’s deep and talented frontcourt frustrated the Connecticut Huskies on both ends of the floor, paving the way for the team’s first conference title in 27 years with a 62-54 win in the American Athletic Conference championship game on Sunday.

SMU earned a No. 6 seed and will face No. 11 UCLA in the South Region of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.

“This is big for all of us,” said senior guard Ryan Manuel, “not just the seniors but it’s as big for SMU as a school, as a basketball program. When coach (Larry) Brown got here, he wanted us to put it back on the map, and I think we made great strides in that.”

UConn (20-14), the defending national champion, came into the AAC tournament needing four wins in four days just to return to the NCAA Tournament. After falling just short of their goal, the Huskies are headed to the National Invitation Tournament.

“It’s postseason play,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “If it’s NIT or NCAA, they’re going to learn from it and they’re going to come back better from it. I’m still coaching them the way I coach them, they’re still going to play the way they’re going to play.”

SMU (27-6) was expected to receive an at-large bid if it lost Sunday, but the victory guaranteed it a spot in the NCAA Tournament field after being one of the final teams left out last season.

“Last year at this time was about as disappointing as it could get,” Brown said. “Fortunately we’ve got another opportunity, and didn’t have to get anybody to decide whether we’re worthy or not.”

As it had all weekend long, it was SMU’s frontcourt that anchored the win.

The conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, Markus Kennedy, capped off a strong weekend by leading his team with 14 points, one of four Mustangs players in double figures. He earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player for his efforts. The 6-foot-10 junior and his fellow forwards helped SMU to a 43-30 advantage on the glass, with sophomore Sterling Brown pulling in 12 rebounds to lead the team.

Sophomore guard Rodney Purvis had 29 points and was the only UConn player in double figures in scoring.

“I was trying to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me,” he said.

For a while, it appeared this game would not be close. The SMU zone defense that Connecticut had carved up for 81 points just two weeks prior locked things down this time around, and the Mustangs took a 33-19 advantage into halftime by holding UConn to 5-of-24 shooting (20.8 percent) from the floor over the opening 20 minutes.

The Huskies, who made more than 53 percent from the floor and knocked down nine 3-pointers in that win, were just 2 of 13 from beyond the arc in that first half.

Usual leading scorer Ryan Boatright would manage just seven points on 1-of-12 shooting for the game.

“I’m just disappointed in my play,” he said. “I missed a lot of shots that should be easy knock-down shots for me. I didn’t show up and be the player I know I can be, I can be better than that. But my teammates fought, they played a tremendous game.”

UConn made it a game in the second half by doing similar things on the defensive end, thanks in large part to the presence of sophomore Amida Brimah. The 7-foot center, limited to just four first-half minutes because of foul trouble, played the entire second half, blocking seven shots during that time and altering numerous others.

The Huskies were able to get within five points with just over three minutes to play, but the Mustangs would hold on.

“He’s a shot blocker, so it made it a little difficult,” Manuel said about the difference Brimah made in the second half. “UConn, they have a tradition of coming back, and we knew they weren’t going to go down with a fight, so for us to stand there as a team and get the

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NCAA News Wire

Alabama fires head coach Grant

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Alabama fired head basketball coach Anthony Grant on Sunday after six seasons.

The Crimson Tide struggled over the final two months of the season, finishing 18-14 and tied for eighth in the Southeastern Conference.

Grant, 48, won at least 20 games three times and made an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2012. His Alabama teams went 117-85, including two NIT appearances (2011 and 2013). He came to Alabama from Virginia Commonwealth University, where he went 76-25 and made two NCAA Tournament appearances.

“This has been a very difficult decision, as I have the highest respect for Anthony as a coach, as a molder of young men, and as a person,” Alabama athletic director Bill Battle said in a statement. “Anthony is a man of impeccable character who has been an excellent representative of our program. He has made tremendous contributions to our program and we always will be grateful for his efforts. Anthony, his wife Chris, and their children have been tremendous assets to our University and our community.

“In this business we are ultimately judged by wins and losses on the court and, for a variety of reasons, we haven’t made satisfactory progress in that area.”

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