ARLINGTON, Texas — Shabazz Napier has been hailed for his clutch shot-making throughout the University of Connecticut’s season of redemption. But in Saturday’s NCAA tournament semifinal against the University of Florida, Napier’s selflessness took center stage.
With the Gators fixated on stopping Napier at all costs, the senior point guard poured himself into defending and dishing to his teammates. As a result, Connecticut placed four players in double figures, led by DeAndre Daniels’ game-high 20 points, to manhandle the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed, 63-53, and earn a spot in Monday’s championship game.
The convincing victory represented a triumph for Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, who in just two seasons has stepped out from under the long shadow cast by his Hall of Fame predecessor and mentor, Jim Calhoun.
And it debunked the widely held notion that the Huskies are a one-man show.
Napier had been brilliant in the tournament, averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. But with Florida double-teaming him much of the game, Napier (12 points) dished out six assists, smartly feeding the 6-foot-9 Daniels and back-court mate Ryan Boatright, who added 13.
With the victory, Connecticut (31-8) snapped Florida’s 30-game winning streak and held the Gators to an offensive output that matched their season low. And they did it with a gritty defensive stand after falling behind by 12 points in the shaky opening minutes.
“They came out full intensity,” Napier said of Florida (36-3). “But we kept our composure. We’ve been in so many dogfights. We’ve been in this position before. We believe in each other.”
The Huskies’ reward, just one year after they were banned from postseason play for falling short of NCAA minimum academic standards, is a date with the University of Kentucky (29-10) in Monday’s title game.
Florida shot just 39 percent from the field, hit only one of its 10 shots from beyond the three-point arc and managed only three assists while turning over the ball 11 times. It was an uncharacteristically sloppy performance from what had previously been the nation’s most dominant team. Florida coach Billy Donovan credited Napier and Boatright, in particular, for throwing Gators senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, the Southeastern Conference player of the year, off his form.
“Their speed and quickness didn’t allow Scottie to get off screens,” Donovan said, “and it made our offense really difficult.”
Wilbekin, who was treated for leg cramps early in the second half, managed just four points and one assist.
The game was a rematch of a Dec. 2 contest on Connecticut’s home court in which Napier scored 26 points, including the buzzer-beating jumper that sealed the Huskies’ 65-64 victory. Florida hadn’t lost since and took the court Saturday with the confidence that comes from a 30-game winning streak.
Laid down on a platform erected at midfield of the Dallas Cowboys’ 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium, it was no ordinary basketball court. The vast space between the backboards and venue’s end zone seats toyed with players’ depth perception and seemed particularly disorienting to the Huskies.
After 10 minutes, Connecticut had five fouls, five turnovers and just two baskets. Napier was visibly frustrated as his team fell behind, 16-4, before Daniels’s three-pointer sparked the 11-0 rally that put Connecticut back in it.
It included a crafty move by the as-yet scoreless Napier, who drove to the hoop and kicked out to Boatright, who drilled a three-pointer.
Daniels struck again from beyond the arc, and Napier got on the scoreboard with another three-pointer with just less than four minutes remaining in the first half.
The Huskies took their first lead, 21-20, on Niels Giffey’s three-point play.
With Gators clamped down on the three-point line, Napier slashed inside for a layup.
Wilbekin had a chance to tie the score at the buzzer, but his jumper missed badly, sending Connecticut to the locker room with a 25-22 lead.
Florida couldn’t get anything going offensively to start the second half, while Connecticut extended its lead to 31-22, taking advantage of Florida’s turnovers and half-hearted rebounding.
But the Gators rallied, getting key buckets from Patric Young (19 points), who pounded the ball inside. Casey Prather’s three-point play made it a one-possession game, 41-38.
That’s when Napier stripped the ball from Wilbekin’s hands, fired it to Boatright for a fast-break bucket that reignited the Huskies in the process.