ARLINGTON, Texas — As most everyone penciled national title favorite Florida into the championship game after the Gators held UConn to two baskets in Saturday's first 11 minutes, the mood in the Huskies' huddle was decidedly different.
"Surprisingly, everything stayed positive," senior forward Niels Giffey said. "Those plays they made to get ahead were nothing we didn't expect or hadn't seen before. We just knew what we had to do to stop those plays because all of them were at the rim."
UConn's optimism proved to be warranted because it stormed back from a 12-point first-half deficit, took the lead by halftime and seized control of the game early in the second half. The seventh-seeded Huskies' 63-53 upset of Florida earns them a shot at a fourth national championship since 1999 on Monday night against either Kentucky or Wisconsin.
That UConn had to rally to reach the national title game is fitting because much of the Huskies' success this season is a result of their ability to overcome adversity.
Second-year UConn coach Kevin Ollie inherited a mess when he took over for a retiring Jim Calhoun in Sept. 2012. Four of the six best players from the previous year's underachieving team had already either turned pro early or transferred and the remaining two were also considering leaving because of Calhoun's sudden retirement and a one-year postseason ban handed down by the NCAA.
If re-recruiting standout guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright was Ollie's first big accomplishment, his second was motivating his team to give a consistent effort every night despite being ineligible for the postseason. UConn exceeded modest expectations by winning 20 games last year, a significant feat that paved the way for a 31-win season this year that has further reaffirmed the program won't slip under Ollie despite the uncertain period following Calhoun's retirement.
Napier sank a game-winning jump shot to beat Florida back on Dec. 2 and carried the Huskies in their first four NCAA tournament victories, but he was no one-man show on Saturday night. Florida limited Napier to 12 points, six assists and three rebounds by blitzing ball screens and not biting on his head fakes in the lane.
The trouble for the Gators was that members of Napier's supporting cast stepped up and made big shots.
DeAndre Daniels continued his March surge with a game-high 20 points, while Boatright and Giffey finished with 13 and 11, respectively. Those three keyed UConn's methodical 27-6 run over the last nine minutes of the first half and the first two of the second, switching control of the game from the Gators to the Huskies.
"It's incredible this team's poise and togetherness," UConn associate head coach Glenn Miller said. "These guys believe in each other, they believe in the coaching staff, they believe in the system and they believe in the game plan. They just kept on pushing and they found a way."
[Slideshow: Check out the best photos of the game right here]
Florida's first loss since Dec. 2 cost Billy Donovan a chance to further enhance his legacy by capturing a third national title. The only coaches with three or more championships are John Wooden (10), Adolph Rupp (4), Mike Krzyzewski (4), Bob Knight (3) and Jim Calhoun (3).
Florida's offensive struggles demonstrated the dangers of a team without first-round NBA-level talent getting too reliant on attacking one-on-one. The Gators had one assist after their opening two baskets and shot only 38.8 percent from the field as UConn stymied their ball screen-heavy attack and kept SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin out of the middle of the floor.
Florida couldn't generate clean looks at the rim against UConn's swarming defense, nor did it sink enough 3-point shots via kickout passes. And after the opening 11 minutes, the Gators no longer forced enough turnovers to create transition chances.
The little success Florida did have on offense came via Casey Prather slashing to the rim and Patric Young overpowering smaller UConn big men in the post. They finished with 15 and 19 points respectively, helping keep the Gators in striking distance.
It was all for naught though as the Huskies held their ground late.
As the final seconds melted off the clock, UConn freshman Terrence Samuel gestured to the Huskies' section of the crowd to make more noise.
They needed no further encouragement, not with UConn one win away from a most unlikely national championship.