The nation’s longest winning streak disappeared in stunning fashion Saturday at the Final Four, with Connecticut delivering its second haymaker to top seed Florida in as many opportunities this season.
The Huskies, the No. 7 seed in the East Region, earned a chance to play for college basketball’s national championship by taking down the Gators 63-53 before a Final Four record of 79,444 at AT&T Stadium. Connecticut shook off a dismal early start with a 27-6 run that spanned the final 8:49 of the first half and the early stages of the second half to snap the Gators’ school-record, 30-game winning streak.
Connecticut (31-8), a team swept in two regular-season games by NIT competitor SMU, harassed Florida’s point guards into multiple mistakes and took full advantage in extending the Huskies’ uncanny run of success at Final Four venues in Texas.
UConn improved to 5-0 in Final Four games played in the Lone Star State and will have an opportunity to complete a Texas Trifecta in Monday’s title game against Wisconsin or Kentucky. The Huskies earned NCAA championships in Houston (2011) and San Antonio (2004) in previous trips to Texas.
“We’ve been through a lot of dogfights,” said UConn guard Shabazz Napier, reflecting on the team’s early 16-4 deficit Saturday. “When we got down, we just said, ‘We need to put pressure on them.’ We kept our composure. Now, we’ve only got one more to go.”
If the Huskies win it, they will secure the fourth national championship in school history and cut down the nets for the third time in Texas. That makes it appropriate, in many ways, that the Huskies’ hero against Florida has a Texas connection.
Forward DeAndre Daniels (20 points, 10 rebounds), a Los Angeles native, broke a commitment with the Texas Longhorns in 2010 to sign with UConn.
“I always liked Texas when I was little kid. But I de-committed because I didn’t feel like it was a good fit,” Daniels said. “I came to UConn and I’m happy with the decision I made.”
Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, in turn, was thrilled by the way Daniels, 6-foot-7, performed against the larger, more physical Gators. Daniels posted game highs for points and rebounds while helping UConn secure a 36-24 edge on points in the paint, as well as a 28-27 edge in rebounds.
The Huskies also shot 55.8 percent from the field, the highest percentage of the season by an opponent against the Gators’ vaunted defense. Florida responded with a 38.8 percent night, including a dismal 1-of-10 effort from behind the arc.
The Gators struggled in their set offense because point guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill were badgered into seven turnovers, with only one assist, by UConn guards Napier and Ryan Boatright. As a team, Florida finished with three assists and 11 turnovers.
“That’s crazy. That’s not usually what we do,” said Wilbekin, the 2014 SEC player of the year who struggled with his shot (2-of-9) and battled leg cramps in the second half. “All credit goes to them and their guards for the way they were putting pressure on us. On offense, we just couldn’t really get anything going.”
As a result, the Gators’ four-senior nucleus of multi-year contributors (Wilbekin, center Patric Young, forward Casey Prather, forward Will Yeguete) fell short in their national title quest in a 36-3 reason that included two losses to UConn.
“It’s really tough,” said Young, who contributed a team-high 19 points. “These guys in the locker room, we’re not going to be together in the same way again.”
Early on, it was Florida that wasted little time in seizing the upper hand in Saturday’s rematch of a Dec. 2 contest won by UConn 65-64. The Gators controlled the tip, scored on their opening possession and built a 7-0 lead before the Huskies lit the scoreboard with 16:06 left in the half on a Daniels layup.
In its first 10 possessions, UConn had four turnovers and two baskets. The Huskies trailed 16-4 before starting an 11-0 run in a 1:42 stretch, propelled by a trio of 3-pointers from Daniels (two) and Boatright. That surge stopped the Gators’ momentum and proved to be part of a 21-6 closing kick that helped the Huskies grab a 25-22 lead at intermission.
A 6-0 spurt to start the second half put UConn on top 31-22 and completed the game-turning 27-6 run. Florida cut the deficit to three on two occasions in the second half, the last on Young’s free throws with 8:03 remaining. But UConn responded with an 11-1 run to take a 51-41 lead with 5:34 remaining.
Florida never threatened again. And Daniels, for one, was happy to be part of the team that eliminated the final remaining No. 1 seed from the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve felt disrespected the whole time in this tournament. A lot of people didn’t even pick us to win our first game,” said Daniels, reflecting on the Huskies’ 89-81 overtime victory over St. Joseph’s to begin their latest tournament run.
Asked about comparing this team to its 2011 NCAA title team, Napier said: “Totally different players. Totally different head coach. We want to create our own path. But we want do same thing that team did and win a championship.”
If successful Monday night, they will do it in Texas, too.