Win against Florida worth playing again

UConn's Shabazz Napier, left, and Ryan Boatright, right, react after Napier's game-winning basket beat Florida at the buzzer, 65-64, on Dec. 2, 2013 at Gampel Pavilion.
UConn's Shabazz Napier, left, and Ryan Boatright, right, react after Napier's game-winning basket beat Florida at the buzzer, 65-64, on Dec. 2, 2013 at Gampel Pavilion. Jessica Hill/AP Photo

After a humbling 33-point loss at Louisville in early March, coach Kevin Ollie reminded his team of sunnier days.

Ollie had his Huskies watch their exhilarating victory over 15th-ranked Florida on Dec. 2 that ended with Shabazz Napier burying a buzzer-beating game winner and then sprinting off the Gampel Pavilion court.

UConn will take what it learned from that game to prepare for Saturday's rematch in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Since that loss, the Gators (36-2) have won 30 straight games and claimed the No. 1 spot in the top 25.

"When we came into difficulties and weren't playing up to our capabilities, you put that tape in…," Ollie said during a Final Four coaches' conference call. "You played with those guys, so don't lose sight of (that) during the dark times. … You know what level we can play at and we'll get back to that.

"You're seeing our guys rally around that and get back to that championship five level mentality in this tournament. It's been great to see."

In its last three NCAA tournament wins, seventh-seeded UConn (30-8) has disposed of No. 2 seed Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and then beat No. 4 Michigan State, 60-54, on Sunday in the East Regional final at Madison Square Garden.

Florida also is in a nice groove.

The Gators went undefeated in the Southeastern Conference and beat Kentucky for a third time this season to capture the conference tournament championship. Kentucky also is in the Final Four, playing Wisconsin, which handed Florida its only other loss this season.

Their 65-64 loss at UConn served as a valuable learning tool, according to Florida coach Billy Donovan.

The Gators appeared to be on their way to a big road win before the Huskies scrambled back from a three-point deficit with 1:12 remaining behind Napier, who had six of his 26 points in the final 33 seconds. UConn used their trademark heart and hustle to seize the victory.

"I think it was a game that really helped our team going forward…," Donovan said. "It helps you understand just how hard you have to battle and fight. It was a great venue in their building. It was a great crowd.

"Any time you get to play in the game like that, you get a chance to learn and grow. Obviously, it was a tough loss for us losing at the buzzer. … We did a much, much better job going forward."

Florida is healthier now. Senior Scottie Wilbekin, who scored 15 points against UConn before leaving with three minutes left after spraining his ankle, is in top form. He had a career-high tying 23 points in Saturday's 62-52 Elite Eight win over Dayton and earned the region's most outstanding player honor.

The victory broke a string of three straight losses in the regional finals for the Gators.

"They're a tough team to face," Ollie said. "They're experienced, being in the Elite Eight three straight years and now finally making it to the Final Four. It's an experienced bunch.

"… They just play so hard. They don't give an inch on the offensive end and defensive end. … For us to beat a team like that, we couldn't relax, not one minute. Fortunately, we came out with a great victory."

The stakes will be much higher when they meet again on Saturday.

Both teams will be familiar with each other but not the enormous pressure that comes with playing on college basketball's grandest stage.

"The event of the Final Four is almost like the Super Bowl," Donovan said. "The players just need to understand what they're walking into. But when the ball gets thrown up on Saturday, both teams are going to go out there and play. We've got to do as good a job as we can preparing for UConn."

g.keefe@theday.com

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