ARLINGTON, Tex. — For almost 11 minutes on Saturday night, it looked as if Florida’s inexorable march to a national championship was going to continue with very little suspense. The Gators led Connecticut, 16-4, in the night’s first Final Four game, and the Huskies looked as if they had a terrible case of stage fright.
Then, almost in the blink of an eye, two things changed the direction of the game by 180 degrees: the Basketball Gods and the Connecticut guards.
The gods clearly took a dim view of Casey Prather’s attempted throw-it-at-the-rim lob pass directed at center Patric Young. Had Prather taken a direct route to the basket, he almost certainly would have been fouled and might have ended up with a three-point-play, which would have put the Gators up 19-4 with 9 minutes 10 seconds left in the first half.
Instead, Young couldn’t quite handle the ball as he trailed the play and the ball slid out-of-bounds. Twenty-three seconds later, DeAndre Daniels made a three-pointer for the Huskies. Then Ryan Boatright hit another. Terence Samuel — Connecticut’s third-best guard — went the length of the court for a layup and then Daniels hit another three-pointer. After scoring four points in the first 11 minutes, Connecticut scored 11 straight in a little more than two minutes. Just like that, the Florida lead was cut to 16-15 and, even though no one in the building knew it, the game was over. U-Conn. rolled to a 63-53 win.
The gods had spoken in response to Prather’s foolish play, and Boatright and Shabazz Napier took over from there. It wasn’t as if either had mind-blowing statistics. Napier, double-teamed often, only took six shots all evening and finished with 12 points. Boatright had 13. The most impressive numbers for the Huskies came from Daniels, the junior forward who has been a revelation during this tournament. He had 20 points and 10 rebounds and was able to compete with Florida’s inside players for 40 minutes.
But it was Boatright and Napier who dominated the game — mostly on the defensive end, especially by turning Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators’ superb point guard, into a confused mess. His coach, Billy Donovan, not only understood what Wilbekin was going through. He could empathize.
“I told Scottie after the game that I went through the same thing in the Final Four [for Providence in 1987] that he went through tonight,” Donovan said. “Our offense all season long had been predicated on me having the ball and making plays. My senior year, playing against [Syracuse’s] Sherman Douglas, I really struggled to do that.
“Scottie couldn’t get in the lane tonight the way he had all year because their guards wouldn’t allow him to get there. None of our back-court guys could get in the lane the way Napier and Boatright did. The fact that we had three assists [total] is a direct reflection of the guard play.”
Wilbekin had 122 assists in the 33 games prior to Saturday. Against U-Conn., he had one. He also committed three turnovers and made only 2 of 9 field goal attempts, with three of his shots not even drawing iron. He came out briefly early in the second half with a recurrence of leg cramps that bothered him a week ago in Florida’s win over Dayton in the Elite Eight but insisted they were not a serious problem.
The Gators made no excuses.
“The better team won,” Wilbekin said. “Even when we were able to get some shots, we couldn’t get them to go down.”
“We didn’t have our best night,” said Donovan, whose team had won 30 straight coming into the game. “But a lot of that was because of Connecticut.”
Boatright and Napier made life miserable for Wilbekin and all the Gators’ players on the perimeter. The only thing that kept Florida within striking distance in the second half was Young, who finished with 19 points. Prather had 15. But Wilbekin finished with only four and shooting guard Michael Frazier — who had been averaging 12.6 points a game — had three. He hit the first shot of the game and never scored again. In fact, the Gators didn’t hit another three-point shot in the final 39 minutes 45 seconds, going 1 for 10 from beyond the arc.
There was a lot of talk prior to this game about how little Connecticut’s 65-64 win over Florida in Storrs, Conn., in December meant entering Saturday’s game. The Gators were still trying to piece themselves together as a team at that point, having dealt with suspensions (Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith), academic issues (Chris Walker) and one expulsion from the team (Damontre Harris). What people forgot is that Connecticut had also improved greatly since that game.
“I think what happened is they became an excellent defensive team,” Donovan said. “They weren’t nearly as good in December defensively as they are now. That was missing for a good portion of the season. Now, they’re defending at a very high level.”
With U-Conn. leading 25-22 at halftime, former Coach Jim Calhoun, who recruited both Boatright and Napier, was thrilled with the way the first 20 minutes had ended. “They keep shooting jump shots all night, we’ll win for sure,” he said. “They aren’t going to beat us with jump shots.”
Donovan knew that. The Gators attacked the basket throughout the second half — attempting only three shots from beyond the three-point arc. But even the correct strategy ultimately didn’t matter. Nothing was easy for Florida all night. The players and Donovan wore the kind of blank postgame looks often seen when a team has lost a game it never thought it could lose.
In truth, though, the last 29 minutes were a rout. The Basketball Gods started it. The U-Conn. guards finished it.
There’s an old college basketball saying that goes like this: The best guards win. They did just that on Saturday night.
With a little help from above.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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