Connecticut had just been run out of the gym in the regular-season finale, a 33-point loss to Louisville on March 8.
It was the Huskies’ third loss to the Cardinals this season and left many Huskies fans wondering what, if any, chance UConn had of making some postseason noise.
After the game, coach Kevin Ollie’s team expected the usual. Coach would break down what they did wrong as they went painfully through the game tape of their 81-48 loss.
Instead, Ollie popped in a tape from Dec. 2, when UConn defeated Florida in Storrs, Conn. It was a reminder from Ollie that they could still play with the nation’s best teams.
UConn (30-8) and No. 1-ranked Florida (36-2) meet in the NCAA Final Four semifinal at 5:09 p.m. Saturday at AT&T Stadium. The Gators have won 30 consecutive games since that 65-64 loss to the Huskies.
“Florida’s No. 1. We competed at a high level against them,” Ollie said Thursday during a news conference at AT&T Stadium. “Don’t think that losing to Louisville that we all are going to stay here. We’re going to move on. We’re going to get better from it. I think that through struggle, you get progression. And that was a struggle for us.”
UConn players were reminded of what they look like when they’re playing they’re best basketball. They were reminded that they could, indeed, play with the nation’s elite teams despite being swept 3-0 by Louisville. The win against Florida wasn’t a shock at the time. The Huskies improved to 8-0 and were ranked 15th. Florida was No. 13 at the time.
“We were playing good basketball before that win,” he said. “But we have so much respect for the program of Florida and how hard we have to play to get a victory like that. It really allowed our team to understand what level we have to play and compete to ultimately get to a Final Four.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan said scheduling tough road games early in the season is the best way to learn about his team. The Gators were 6-2 after losing at UConn. The other loss was by six points on the road at Wisconsin in the second game of the season. The Badgers play Kentucky in the late semifinal Saturday night.
“I think we learned a lot about ourselves. That early in the season, we’re all trying to get know our team better, to see how we respond against high level competition,” Donovan said.
Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin said the Gators aren’t motivated by revenge.
“As far as getting another crack at playing them, it’s really not about that at all,” he said. “I would be happy to play anybody in the Final Four, because I’m just happy to be here with an opportunity to advance.”
Neither team resembles the one from early December. Florida’s bench was limited because of injuries and Wilbekin left the game with an ankle injury with 3:00 remaining, leaving the Gators with five available players.
UConn freshmen DeAndre Daniels played well that night (14 points, seven rebounds), but has elevated his game during the NCAA Tournament.
“He posts up, he shoots 3s, he’s putting it on the floor, he can start the break, he passes, he rebounds, he’s playing really hard for their team,” Donovan said. “I think watching UConn now and getting prepared for them in December, there’s no question he’s really continued to progress and grow.”
Ollie didn’t say whether there will be another viewing before Saturday’s rematch.
“I just wanted our guys to see how we were rotating, how we were playing, how we were challenging them and that they can have that same experience again and play that same type of way,” he said.