2:04 PM EDT, April 6, 2014
ARLINGTON, Texas —The team that had nothing to play for last season has a national championship to play for Monday.
The rookie coach who had a six-month contract in 2012 can coach for as long as he wants at Storrs now.
UConn beat the No. 1 team in the nation, 63-53, at AT&T Stadium, and as incredible as that may read today, it doesn't nearly capture the Huskies' voracity on this unforgettable Saturday night.
They ripped the heart out of Florida. The UConn guards ripped the heart out of the Florida guards. It was the Gators who were supposed to suffocate teams with their defense in the Final Four. It was Scottie Wilbekin and the Gators who were supposed to sustain pressure, supposed to deny, deny, deny their way to the national title.
Instead, it was Wilbekin who could never get past the perimeter defense led by Ryan Boatright. Instead, it was sharpshooter Michael Frazier II who made an opening three-pointer and disappeared. Instead, it was freshman Kasey Hill — who didn't play in Florida loss at Storrs on Dec. 2 and much was made of that fact this week — who looked like he didn't want anything to do with the sting of the brightest lights.
"We didn't come to Dallas to play in the national championship game," Boatright said. "We came to win."
So much has been made of how resilient and clutch these Huskies are, well, maybe we didn't also give them enough credit for how tough they are. All I've got to say is this: Boatright has more guts than a slaughterhouse.
"The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn't live in the lane like he has all year long for us," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after UConn had ended his team's 30-game winning streak.
Jim Calhoun had his crowning coaching moments against Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in 1999 and 2004.
Kevin Ollie, coaching in his first NCAA Tournament, had his crowning coaching moment on Saturday night.
"We live and die on defense," Ollie said. "We played relentless defense. It's not always perfect, but we're going to play 40 full."
The Huskies fell behind 16-4 in the first 11 minutes. They were a mess offensively. The offense looked lost. Their ball screens were met by nothing but Florida orange. It was complicated by the fact they were getting beat on the defensive boards, too.
Still, they were not beaten. Ollie's teams never seem to be beaten. The human flashlight always sees positive things ahead.
As the metrics guys will tell you, Florida had the best adjusted efficiency defense in the nation. But, man, it was what the Huskies did defensively to Florida that will go into UConn lore.
"On offense, we couldn't get anything going," Wilbekin said. "They were really aggressive, disruptive. They made us disjointed and we ended up in late-clock situations, having to force something up. It was one of our worst offensive-execution games of the season."
The Huskies were down three points to St. Joseph's March 20 when Ollie called a timeout with less than a minute left. Amida Brimah forced overtime and, man, if you dozed off at the timeout and just woke up you are going to be one shocked person.
As bad as UConn was offensively in the early going, it finished with 55.8 percent shooting. DeAndre Daniels scored 20 points, pulled in 10 rebounds, played big time. A month ago, it seemed like a joke that he might leave for the NBA. Today, that stands as a very real possibility. The X factor is now the KO factor. Daniels is knocking opponents out of the tournament.
Yes, the three-guard lineup Ollie turned to paid off huge dividends. They spread the floor. They found Daniels.
Still, the guts of this game were the guts of the UConn perimeter defense. You know how tough Boatright is. You know how tough little Shabazz Napier is. And you know what? They are even tougher than that. The Huskies took the Gators out of their pick-and-roll motion offense.
"It wasn't just Ryan Boatright," Ollie said. "It was our bigs showing out on screen-and-rolls. It was us getting back in transition, back, pointing and locating. Especially Wilbekin and Frazier, we really wanted to keep them out of the game. Frazier, he reads off of Wilbekin when he gets in the lane.
"You've got to play [Patric] Young. Then you really give up Frazier on the field cut. So we wanted to really stay on Wilbekin, keep him out of the lane, keep him on one side. I thought we did a great job of that starting with Ryan. That was our key. We call it the ace of spades, that was the ace of spades in this game, to take him out."
It obviously wasn't in the cards for Wilbekin, who had some cramps early in the second half.
"I got out of the game, got some ice and it wasn't a problem from then on," Wilbekin said.
Wilbekin had 12 assists and two turnovers to go with 67 points in the first four tournament games. He had four points on 2-for-9 shooting Saturday. Worse, he had one assist to go with three turnovers. Florida went 1-for-10 on threes. Florida, which had 22 assists on 29 baskets last weekend against UCLA, had three assists and 11 turnovers.
Repeat. Florida had three assists and 11 turnovers.
"That's crazy," Wilbekin said. "All credit goes to their guards. We didn't take care of the ball. When we did get by them, we didn't keep the ball tight. They would reach from behind. We were too loose with it."
"Boatright does a great job really pressuring the ball," Donovan said. "And like Scottie said, even when you go by him, they turned us, they flip balls, they slapped balls out of our hands, they got on the break. They got us to take some tough shots. There are not many guards that have kept Scottie Wilbekin out of the lane. These guys kept him out of the lane."
The 53 points Florida scored matched their lowest point total of the season. More than one person is going to walk away from this old-fashioned swamp-whoopin' claiming Ollie got the better of Donovan.
"I don't think there was anything different than he has done all year long," Donovan said. "They probably made some adjustments on personnel, but that's what they have been doing.
"The biggest difference in UConn's team in my opinion from seeing them in December and then watching them on tape is they have turned into a great defensive team. I think that was probably missing for a good portion of their season. I think it all starts with Boatright."
Remember all the times the Boat Show frustrated Ollie and UConn fans with overpenetration into the lane? Well, it goes way beyond that. He has turned into a defensive cobra. He has become an unselfish player.
"Ryan Boatright has done a whole 360," said Ollie, who probably meant 180, but we get the point. "If anybody had seen him his sophomore year to now, it's like night and day. Him being a facilitator, making other people better. That's how you mature as a basketball player. That's how you mature as a man."
Ollie, whose defense held Michigan State to six points in the paint last weekend, wasn't buying the much-improved defense stuff.
"We have been playing great defense all year," Ollie said. "We have been holding our opponents under 39 percent."
"Our guards did a tremendous job," Daniels said. "They never laid off Wilbekin, never sagging off him. They were always on him and frustrating him."
"[Ollie] said we had to play 40 full on the defensive end and had to help each other on defense," Boatright said. "The rotations had to be on point. If we could disrupt then and get Wilbekin as uncomfortable as we can, we would have a nice chance to win the game."
Along the way this month, the Huskies have beaten a No. 1, 2, 3 and 4 seed. Nothing is impossible now. The team that was ineligible for the NCAA Tournament last season because of academic sanctions is eligible to win it all Monday night against Kentucky. And UConn has its academic house in order to boot!
And the coach, who insisted he knew "this destiny was coming," stands to have a big, big contract in his future.
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