Teams have to be mentally tough to reach the NCAA Final Four. No weak-minded team is going to make it through the tournament.
Connecticut, however, takes toughness to new, uncharted heights.
For the second consecutive game, the Huskies stared at a large deficit and didn’t blink, coming back to beat Florida 63-53 on Saturday to advance to Monday’s NCAA championship at AT&T Stadium.
UConn (31-8) was trailing the No. 1 overall seed and clear favorite Gators by 12 midway through the first half before mounting a rugged, self-assured comeback that left Florida (36-3) looking soft and stunned.
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It’s nothing new for UConn, which trailed Michigan State by nine early in the second half before Shabazz Napier, the Huskies’ All-America point guard, led a comeback victory.
Napier wasn’t alone Saturday. In fact, Napier finished with 12 points and was UConn’s third-leading scorer behind DeAndre Daniels (20 points) and Ryan Boatright (13 points). Niels Giffey, who had struggled offensively the last two games, finished with 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting.
“They showed some true grit and toughness,” Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie said. “I told you they are fighters. So when we got down, we kept fighting and kept believing in each other.”
UConn committed six turnovers in the first half, most coming early which helped the Gators open a 16-4 lead. But an 11-0 run ignited by 3-pointers from Daniels and Boatright got the Huskies back in the game.
“We have been in a lot of dog fights,” Napier said. “We are just an experienced group. We believe in each other and continue to believe in each other and continue to have faith.
“We are going to win. That is what we do.”
Forward DeAndre Daniels came up huge for the Huskies in the East regional semifinal victory over Iowa State, scoring a career-high 27 points.
He was back at it again Saturday. He had a game-high 20 points and 10 rebounds, the first time a player has had that many points and rebounds in a national semifinal game since Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003.
Uconn is 8-0 this season when Daniels scores 18 points or more.
3Assists for Florida, the fewest in national semifinals history since assists became an official stat in 1983-84.
4Appearances for UConn in the NCAA championship game. The Huskies are 3-0 in title games with wins in 1999, 2004 and 2011.
9-10UConn from the field to end the game. The Huskies made 14 of 22 (63.6 percent) field goals in the second half.
“You don’t go 13 years in the [NBA] without a jump shot as a guard unless you’re a really tough guy and have a lot to give to a team.” — Former UConn coach Jim Calhoun on his successor Kevin Ollie’s mental toughness.