UConn upsets No. 1 Florida and advances to national final
Arlington, Texas - A jubilant Shabazz Napier raised his index finger as he jogged off the court with his UConn teammates Saturday night.
"Simple, just one more game to go," Napier said of his message.
An improbable postseason run - at least in the minds of those outside the UConn locker room - continued with a 63-53 upset of top-seeded Florida in a national semifinal before a Final Four record crowd of 79,444 at AT&T Stadium.
The seventh-seeded Huskies will play in the national championship game for the fourth time in program history, winning their three previous trips in 1999, 2004 and 2011. They'll face Kentucky, a 74-73 winner over Wisconsin, on Monday (9:10 p.m., Ch. 3).
"It sounds crazy right now," junior Ryan Boatright said. "We are blessed and grateful to be in the national championship game. We didn't come to Dallas to just play in the national championship game. We came to win.
"We know we have one more game and 40 more minutes until the real celebration."
UConn (31-8) fought through early adversity, turning a 12-point deficit into a 3-point halftime lead. The Huskies kept their composure and never lost their lead.
"It was a great victory," coach Kevin Ollie said. "They stayed together and they showed some true grit and toughness."
Junior DeAndre Daniels continued his recent scoring spree, scoring a game-high 20 points and also leading all players with 10 rebounds. Napier scored 12 points while Boatright added 13 and senior Niels Giffey 11.
Florida (36-3), the top ranked team the country, saw its winning streak end at 30 straight and suffered its first defeat since losing in Storrs on Dec. 2.
The Huskies were asked again after Saturday's game about that victory earlier this season being a fluke.
"It really doesn't matter right now," Giffey said. "I just want to have a ring. If it was a fluke game, or another fluke game, so be it.
"When we won the national championship my freshman year, people said it was the ugliest game ever in the (NCAA) history. To be honest, it didn't matter to me because I had that ring."
The Huskies have embraced the tournament underdog role. They certainly looked like one in the opening minutes Saturday as they fell behind 16-4. UConn struggled to find quality shots, often playing beat-the-shot clock against a trapping defense.
UConn simply took a deep breath and regrouped, just as it has done all season.
"We have been through a lot of dogfights and we continue to believe in each other," Napier said. "We didn't point fingers when we were down."
Daniels helped jump-start the Huskies, sparking an 11-0 run with a 3-pointer from the corner. Napier converted a driving layup to push UConn in front for good, 23-22.
The momentum continued after intermission, as Napier's 3-pointer capped a 27-6 run with a 3-pointer and a 31-23 edge. After some turnover trouble, UConn switched to a three-guard lineup and took better care of the ball.
UConn also cranked up the defensive intensity, frustrating Florida and holding leading scorer Scottie Wilbekin to just four points. The Gators shot an icy 38.8 percent overall.
Dogged defense has been a reliable friend for UConn.
"We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable," Ollie said. "We wanted to challenge every dribble and every pass."
The Huskies also executed a near flawless offense, dissecting the defense. They shot a sizzling 55.8 percent, a season high against Florida, and made 14 of 22 field goals in the second half.
Only senior strongman Patric Young (19 points) proved to be a pain. He hit two free throws to trim the deficit to 43-40 with eight minutes left.
Napier's steal led to Boatright's breakaway basket, starting an 8-1 run and putting the Huskies back in control. Their lead eventually grew to 12.
They added an upset victim to their impressive list, defeating one, two, three and four seeds during their postseason run. They improved to 7-1 in Final Four games in the program's history.
"I don't think anybody really gave us a chance past Iowa State," senior Tyler Olander said of UConn's Sweet Sixteen game. "We just went to work. Our coaches did a great job putting together a strategy that we really stuck to and bought into."
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