Gil LeBreton

Huskies sink Gators with great defense

No excuses this time.

No Kasey Hill ankle injury. No home-court disadvantage. No do-or-die last-second Shabazz Napier shot, as there was in December.

Instead, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA basketball tournament, the Florida Gators, disappeared into a Connecticut-dug sinkhole Saturday.

The Gators’ 30-game win streak? Gone.

Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin, the Southeastern Conference player of the year? Vanished.

The UConn Huskies, though they finished only third this season in the underappreciated American Athletic Conference, losing three times to Louisville and twice to SMU, are headed to the NCAA Tournament championship game.

Oh, and all those hours that the NCAA committee spent seeding the tourney field? All them — and probably the final futile hopes of your bracket — were flushed down Saturday’s sinkhole, too.

This time the Huskies didn’t need a buzzer-beating dagger by Napier to beat Florida. This time the UConn All-American and his running mate at guard, Ryan Boatright, strangled the Gators with defense.

No excuses for Florida.

“Once they got their defense set,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said, “I thought we had a hard time handling their pressure up top, keeping the ball moving, getting down the lane, being aggressive. We struggled there.”

The turning point seemed as sudden as it was unexpected. Florida bolted from the blocks to a 16-4 lead, looking like a No. 1 seed should, but Boatright and Napier quickly ratcheted up the pressure out front. UConn went on an 11-0 run during which the Gators, clearly bothered by the long arms and quick hands they were encountering, never seemed to get off a comfortable shot.

“On offense, we just couldn’t really get anything going,” said Wilbekin. “They were being really aggressive, and we couldn’t really get into our offense. We weren’t moving the ball as well. A couple of us were having bad shooting nights.”

A lot of that was Napier, Boatright and DeAndre Daniels, the one-time Texas commit, squeezing on the defensive end.

Wilbekin finished the game shooting 2 for 9 from the field and scored only four points. The Gators, as a team, shot a telling 38.8 percent for the game.

On the final stat sheet, Florida was credited with zero fast-break baskets. None.

History tells us that seedings often lose their relevance in this NCAA Tournament. Great defense, however, never does.

What Saturday’s results say about RPI rankings and power conferences and regional seedings are best left to the professional bracketologists. The better team won the opening game of the doubleheader Saturday. The Huskies, as teams do, just happen to be hitching a ride on a rainbow at the right time.

Coach Kevin Ollie’s message to the Huskies before the game was heeded well.

“He just said we had to play 40 full [minutes] on the defensive end, and we just had to help each other on defense,” Boatright said. “If we could disturb and get Scottie Wilbekin as uncomfortable as we can, we would have a nice chance to win the game.”

Except it wasn’t nice. It was aggressive. And relentless.

“We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable,” Ollie said. “We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass.”

The Huskies did just that. The Gators seemed to struggle just to find a shot in the second half.

“We’ve been saying all year that we’ve got a complete team,” Boatright said. “It’s not a one-man team. It’s not a two-man team.

“We’ve got a complete team.”

It’s usually the complete teams that find ways to survive at this time of year. Not the high-seeded ones. Not always the conference kingpins.

No excuses this time. But defense, great defense, always seems to find a way to play another night.

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