By DOM AMORE, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
2:03 PM EDT, April 6, 2014
ARLINGTON, Texas — The Huskies never seem to run out of surprises, never seem to run out of belief in themselves, never seem to run out of resourcefulness.
Nor will they run out of time. They have extended their season now all the way to the last possible game, the national championship.
"These guys won't take 'no' for an answer," coach Kevin Ollie said. "They want to play more. They're built for one more."
UConn stunned Florida, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, 63-53 in the semifinal on Saturday night before 79,000 at AT&T Stadium, and they will play one more — against either Wisconsin or Kentucky for the national championship on Monday night.
"We love each other and we believe in each other," Ryan Boatright said, "even if nobody believes in us."
The Huskies, who were scoreless for the first 3:54 and fell 12 points behind, never showed a hint of panic, grasped control of the game and kept the Gators in an inescapable choke hold — and to those who believed that their victory against Florida in December was some kind of fluke, the Huskies respectfully answered, "Fluke that."
Florida's 30-game winning streak is history, and UConn (31-8) is one win away from adding a fourth national championship to its history, the first for Ollie, who took over for retiring Jim Calhoun 19 months ago.
"We feel like we have been doubted the whole season," said DeAndre Daniels, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds, "heading into the tournament when people didn't have us winning the first game. But that's what drives us. … We like to go out and try to prove people wrong and let them know that UConn's back on top."
Florida dominated inside during the early going, jumped out to an 11-5 lead in rebounding as the Huskies started out 2-for-9 from the floor. Ollie called timeout with 9:48 to play in the first half, Florida leading, 16-4.
"We understood that they came out and they came out full intensity," said Shabazz Napier, who was limited to 12 points, "Sometimes it happens in the game. But we keep our composure. We have been in so many dogfights. We sat down after coach called the timeout and he just said, 'Guys, we have been in this position before, believe in each other.'"
As so often happens after a timeout, UConn got an open look. Daniels hit a three-point shot, and suddenly the game turned. A turnover, a basket by Terrence Samuel, who provided a spark off the bench, and threes by Boatright and Daniels again — and the Huskies had an 11-0 run.
"They were leaving DeAndre open because they were doubling and doing all sorts of things," Napier said, "and he took advantage of it. When he knocked down that three, our fans went crazy and then we understood what was going to happen next. We just believed in each other and kept fighting."
The Huskies had six turnovers in the first nine minutes, but none for the rest of the half. They caught up in rebounding and took the lead for the first time, 21-20, on Niels Giffey's three-point play with 3:18 to go in the half. They led 25-22 at the break.
"We had three or four possessions in a row where our pick-and-roll coverage broke down," Florida coach Billy Donovan said, "and the lead went from 12 to three pretty quick. Then once they got their defense set, we had a hard time handling their pressure up top."
Boatright scored 13 points and had three assists, Napier had 12 and six, but their impact on this game was on defense. Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators' marquee guard, never got on track and Florida's offense fell apart, as UConn extended the lead in the second half. UConn had six steals, and Florida had only three assists against 11 turnovers.
"That's crazy," Wilbekin said. "That's not usually what we do. All the credit goes to them and their guards and the way they were denying and putting pressure on us."
Florida was 19-for-49 from the floor, and made only one of 10 three-point attempts — the one made by Michael Frazier II on the Gators' first possession of the game.
"It's just the way we scouted that particular team," said Giffey, who scored 11 points, "They are obviously really strong inside with Patric Young and a couple of other guys, and we were just trying to make them play on the outside and take contested shots."
Young scored 19 and Casey Prather had 14 for Florida (36-3), but much of it was too late to matter. UConn, after the slow start, shot a season high 55.8 percent, hitting 24 of 43 from the floor, 5 of 12 threes. Napier and Boatright were able to find Daniels breaking free with alley-oop passes for easy baskets.
"We wanted to space the court," Ollie said. "We wanted to get gaps."
Napier hit a three-pointer two minutes into the second half to make it an eight-point game, but UConn's big men, Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah, got into foul trouble and the Gators crept back in, closing to within three as Young, who had missed seven of his first eight shots, made a couple of hook shots, the latter cutting the Huskies' lead to 43-40.
Ollie then went to a small, quick lineup with Samuel in there, and it generated a couple of fast-break buckets to restore the Huskies' lead to 47-40 with less than seven minutes to go. Then a gorgeous alley-oop pass from Boatright to Daniels made it 49-41. A jumper by Daniels and two free throws by Napier iced it, making it a 12-point game with 56 seconds left.
UConn, the No.7 seed in the East, was nearly eliminated in the round of 64 by St. Joseph's, but prevailed in overtime. Since then, they have knocked off No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State, No. 4 Michigan State and now the No.1 team in all the polls.
"Even when we're down 16-4," Ollie said, "I told the guys, 'You're going to have faith in each other.' I knew we were going to get back in the game, they knew they were going to get back in the game. They showed some true grit and toughness."
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