ARLINGTON, Texas – Connecticut's early season victory over Florida was the most disregarded result of the year in college basketball.
For the past week, everyone dismissed the fact the Huskies beat the Gators 65-64 on Dec. 2. It was in Storrs, and Florida was without guard Kasey Hill and big man Chris Walker. And the Gators had not lost since then, while the Huskies went on to lose with regularity – eight times between Dec. 18 and March 15.
So the heavy presumption was No. 1 Florida would get its payback against UConn on Saturday night in the Final Four. But the Huskies have made a habit of mocking presumption on this ridiculous run.
"Those are just excuses," UConn big man Tyler Olander said of the earlier game. "What can they say now? What was the reason we beat them this time?"
These are the reasons behind the Huskies' 63-53 upset victory in the national semifinal in JerryWorld: UConn's relentless defense destroyed the Florida backcourt; the hide-and-seek talent of DeAndre Daniels is now out in full; and Kevin Ollie has coached a confidence into his players that appears to be completely unbreakable.
"Our confidence is above the roof right now," guard Terrence Samuel said. "With us playing defense like that in the half court, we're a great team."
Greatness was completely unforeseeable on March 8, when the Huskies were obliterated by Louisville by 33 points. But the NCAA tournament is a fountain of fresh starts for stumbling teams. UConn has bathed in its healing waters and emerged a new team – and now a team that will play for the national title Monday night.
Florida's 53 points tied a season low. Sixteen of those came in the first 10 minutes and 12 seconds while racing out to a 12-point lead. That fed the pregame belief the Gators were the superior team, but we forgot to factor in UConn's vast reservoir of resilience.
"We understood we came out lousy," said star guard Shabazz Napier. "We never got too negative with each other. I don't think we were too worried."
When Daniels made a 3, it broke the ice and the tension. From that point forward the Huskies settled in and beheaded the Gators defensively.
They turned Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin's final game in a Florida uniform into a nightmare. Wilbekin finished with four points on 2-of-9 shooting and had three turnovers and just one assist. His ability to drive and fracture the defense was completely taken away by UConn's Ryan Boatright and the rest of the Huskies guards.
"We wanted to really stay on Wilbekin, keep him out of the lane, keep him on one side," Ollie said. "I thought we did a great job of that starting with Ryan. And then it just started with everybody. That was our key. We call it the ace of spades, that was the ace of spades in this game and we wanted to take him out."
With Wilbekin reduced to a four of clubs, that limited the impact of shooting guard Michael Frazier II. He made the first basket of the game, a corner 3-pointer, and didn't score again. He never even got another clean look at the basket.
While it was surprising to see the Florida backcourt so rattled, it was not unprecedented against UConn. In the East regional final, the Huskies devoured Michigan State's guards in pretty much the same fashion.
"We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable," Ollie said. "We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass."
They did, and the response from Florida was a startling step back. Nothing can make a team look more rattled than when every dribble becomes a chore, and the Gators' three assists and 11 turnovers reflected that.
DeAndre Daniels came up huge for UConn on Saturday, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. (Getty)
"That's crazy," Wilbekin said of the upside-down assist-turnover ratio. "That's not usually what we do."
Still, the Gators had a chance at a comeback in the second half when center Patric Young got going in the paint. But the No. 1 team in the nation in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy was carved up in the final minutes by the Huskies.
UConn made 11 of its last 12 field goal attempts, getting easy baskets against Florida's 1-3-1 zone and its man-to-man defense. The Gators couldn't get enough stops to get back in the game.
On a team carried all year offensively by Napier, Daniels continues his postseason coming-out party. He had 18 points in UConn's round-of-64 victory over St. Joseph's, 27 points and 10 rebounds against Iowa State in the Sweet 16, and a 20-10 night Saturday against Florida. Late in his junior season, it's finally all coming together for the slender forward.
"Early on everyone saw the potential was there," Olander said of Daniels. "To see that potential become reality on the court is something to watch."
Ollie, meanwhile, is now showing his potential as a coach. He has rightfully gotten a lot of credit for continuing Jim Calhoun's trademark relentless defense. But the offensive execution – especially finding the weaknesses in the Florida zone – deserves a mention as well.
In just his second season as a head coach, Ollie is proving his worth in real time.
Ollie was the next-to-last person in the UConn locker room when it was over. The last was Calhoun, in a hurry-up-limp to catch his protégé. The legend wrapped an arm around Ollie's waist, and the young coach returned the gesture. He's taken UConn farther than anyone imagined when the tourney started – all the way to the end.
"It's not always perfect all the time, but we're going to play 40 full," Ollie said. "That's why I believe in my guys. They are terrific, terrific people because they do not take no for an answer. They want to play more. They are built for one more."
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