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
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