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UConn men face Florida tonight in national semifinals

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published April 05. 2014 4:00AM
David J. Phillip/The Day
UConn All-American guard Shabazz Napier works on his shooting form during the Huskies' open practice Friday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Huskies play Florida in the national semifinals tonight.

Arlington, Texas - During a season-long quest to win a national championship, UConn resisted the temptation to look too far down the road.

By focusing on the daily grind, the Huskies have remained on course.

They're close to reaching their ultimate goal, needing to beat top-seeded Florida (36-2) tonight in the national semifinal (6:09, TBS) at AT&T Stadium to to earn the right to play for the title on Monday.

"We prepared every single day for that next day," senior Shabazz Napier said of the team's approach. "That's all we could do and it got us here.

"At the end of the day, all four teams here, we don't feel like our business is finished. We want to hoist the trophy on Monday night. Everyone is going to fight and claw for it. Hopefully we can be that team."

To beat the Gators, seventh-seeded UConn (30-8) has to pull off another postseason upset and beat the consenus No. 1 team in the nation. The Huskies are considered an underdog, not only judging by seeding but by prognosticators.

UConn's road to the Final Four is littered with doubters, just as it was during a magical 2011 national championship run.

"This means everything," senior Tyler Olander of playing in the Final Four. "It just shows what UConn basketball is all about. If you doubt us, we'll prove you wrong."

Tonight's outcome may come down to desire and willpower.

Both the Huskies and Gators enter tonight playing impressive basketball. They both rely on confident, talented veterans and tenacious defense. They've survived a variety of tough NCAA tournament tests.

The revenge factor is on Florida's side.

The Gators lost a 65-64 heartbreaker in Storrs on Dec. 2, referring to that defeat as the lowest point of their season. Since then, they've become a healthier and deeper team, ripping a school-record 30 straight wins.

"They're on a high right now," junior DeAndre Daniels said. "They're playing great basketball. They're sharing the basketball. They're playing hard. It will be really tough. We feel great. I feel like nobody is playing harder than us right now."

The Huskies are following coach Kevin Ollie's master plan - play hard, play together and play for each other and good things will happen. They've fed off their coach's toughness and determination to reach this point.

"Our job is not done yet," Ollie said.

Nothing seems to faze this team. During Friday's press conference, the Huskies appeared loose and ready to play in the national spotlight.

"This is a very relaxed group," associate head coach Glen Miller said. "As intense and as focused as Kevin is, he keeps a loose and relaxed atmosphere."

The Gators also are a mission, trying to win the program's first national title since 2007 after reaching the Elite Eight the last three years.

With a starting lineup that features four seniors, including Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin and the conference's top defender Patric Young, a muscular 6-foot-9, 240-pound center, Florida won't buckle under the pressure.

Defense is at the heart of the Gators' winning streak. They've frustrated opponents by mixing in a variety of defenses, from a trapping man-to-man to an active 1-3-1 zone. They've limited NCAA opponents to just 55 points and 39.7 percent shooting from the field in four games.

With Billy Donovan, who's won two national championships, in charge on the sidelines, Florida will be tough to beat.

Of course, no one expected UConn to bounce back so quickly from a postseason ban last year, so it's no surprise the Huskies are wearing the underdog label in the Final Four field that also includes Kentucky and Wisconsin.

"A lot of people weren't expecting us to be here and we are here," Ollie said. "A lot of people picked against, and we're still here."

The Huskies are an impressive 6-1 in their Final Four history.


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