UConn’s dogged defense completely cramps Florida’s style

ARLINGTON, Texas — Even a No. 7 seed can knock off the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1 seed when it plays defense like UConn did Saturday night.

The Huskies locked their jaws on Florida’s backcourt and never let go for a 63-53 win in the first national semifinal at AT&T Stadium.

UConn’s guard combo of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier so disrupted Florida’s offense that the Gators wound up with 11 turnovers and just three assists —€“ and just one assist in the second half.

"The difference in the game was [point guard] Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year for us," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright. He had a hard time getting around Napier, which inevitably made our offense very, very difficult."

Wilbekin, Florida’s undisputed leader, struggled with leg cramps during the game, but struggled even more to get free against UConn’s defense. Wilbekin was just 2-of-9 shooting for four points. He had three turnovers and one assist in his final game.

Napier didn’t have the hot hand as he did in UConn’s previous tourney wins. He finished with 12 points and six assists.

But forward DeAndre Daniels made up the difference with 20 points and 10 rebounds while Boatright scored 13.

A chat with former UConn coach Jim Calhoun apparently motivated Daniels.

"We talked Friday, and he was telling me that ‘nobody is paying attention to you’," Daniels said. "I told him don’t worry about it. Everybody will pay attention to me after Saturday. I promised him."

Connecticut (31-8) was the last team to beat Florida (36-3) until this weekend’s Final Four. Now the Huskies will be making their fourth appearance in Monday’s national championship game. UConn won the title in its three previous appearances.

Early on, it was UConn that appeared to be suffocating under Florida’s defensive pressure. It took UConn more than five minutes to score its second basket and Florida led 16-4 with 9:48 left in the half.

Then everything changed like the weather in Texas. UConn went on a 21-6 run to close the half and went to the locker room with a 25-22 lead.

"We didn’t point fingers when we were down," Napier said. "We just understood this was going to be a game of runs. When we were down 16-4, we just looked at each and said we’ve got to put the pressure on, ante up, because this could be our last 40 minutes and we didn’t want that."

Except Florida never made a real run in the second half. The Gators struggled to find shots while UConn stretched its lead to double digits.

Florida’s frontcourt tried to carry the load with center Patric Young scoring 19 and forward Casey Prather 15.

But a dismal 1-of-10 performance from 3-point range — Michael Frazier made Florida’s only three in the first minute of the game — foiled any chances of a Florida comeback.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie’s instructions to his guards proved prophetic.

"He just said we had to play 40 full on the defensive end," Boatright said. "The [defensive] rotations had to be on point. If we could disturb and get Scottie Wilbekin as uncomfortable as we can, we would have a nice chance to win the game."

Now UConn has a chance to win an unlikely national title as the third No. 7 or lower seed to reach the title game since the field expanded in 1985. Villanova won the title as a No. 8 seed in 1985 and Butler reached final as a No. 8 seed in 2011.

"We didn’t come to Dallas to play in just the national championship game," Boatright said. "We came to win. We know we have one more game and 40 more minutes until the real celebration."

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire