UConn is in the championship game, and there's nothing fluky about it
Yes, there were a lot of reasons to qualify UConn's win over Florida back in December. But this win in the Final Four requires no asterisk.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Most folks spent the past week explaining all of the reasons Connecticut beat Florida back in December, and should we go through them one more time?
- The game was played in Storrs, Conn.
- McDonald's All-American Kasey Hill didn't play.
- McDonald's All-American Chris Walker didn't play.
- SEC POY Scottie Wilbekin was injured with 3:01 remaining.
- Shabazz Napier got a lucky offensive rebound in the final seconds.
- Then he sank a lucky jumper at the buzzer to give UConn a 65-64 win.
"But what can they say now?" Connecticut senior Tyler Olander asked me late Saturday in the locker room. "What was the reason we won this time? Scottie Wilbekin didn't get hurt. Chris Walker played. So I'd like to hear what they have to say now."
Let's go with a simple ... Congratulations.
UConn, otherwise known as the third-place team from the American Athletic Conference and No. 7 seed from the East Regional, beat top-ranked Florida again on Saturday, this time by a 63-53 margin here at AT&T Stadium, and don't even try to put an asterisk beside this victory.
It would be unfair to do that.
It would also be wrong to do that.
And, yes, this is coming from one of the people who put an asterisk next to UConn's first win over Florida, the one that came Dec. 2, and I put that asterisk next to that win for the reasons listed above. I wrote about it last Sunday, talked about it on radio shows all week, then nodded when my colleague, Gregg Doyel, dedicated a column to it. The headline on that column: "UConn's secret to beating Florida? Injured Gators, fluke buzzer-beater."
"Doesn't matter if it was a fluke or not," Niels Giffey said Friday. "We got that win. We can have a fluke [in the national semifinals], too, and go to the national championship game."
Yes you can, Niels.
And yes you are -- except let's be clear about something, and that something is this: Not a single aspect of UConn's win here was fluky. Like Olander said, Wilbekin played, Hill was healthy, Walker was eligible and the Huskies didn't need a lucky bounce in the final seconds or a lucky shot at the buzzer to win, and they didn't need homecourt advantage, either. They just lined-up, five-on-five, full-roster vs. full-roster, and snapped Florida's 30-game winning streak in a pretty convincing way despite falling behind 16-4 early.
That was the score 11 minutes post tipoff.
It was 16-4, Florida.
Then UConn got going.
"I wasn't surprised," said Florida senior Casey Prather, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes. "They are a good team, and they did what good teams do."
But they also did something that nobody else did all season, which is completely overwhelm a Florida team that was undefeated in games where all of its players were eligible and healthy. That 16-4 deficit turned into a 37-27 advantage with 13:03 remaining thanks to a 33-11 run during which Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright exposed Florida's guards on both ends of the court, and the Gators never got closer than three points again.
"We didn't point fingers when we were down," said Napier, who got 12 points, six assists and three rebounds in the win. "We just understood that this was going to be a game of runs ... so we just looked at each other and said, 'We got to put the pressure on, ante up, because this could be our last 40 minutes.' And we didn't want that."
So they didn't allow that.
Consequently, Napier's season-long Kemba Walker impersonation was extended with a win few predicted the Huskies would record, and now UConn is just one more victory from something nobody could've reasonably predicted five months ago -- much less back on Sept. 13, 2012, when the school tabbed a recently retired NBA player to lead this historically strong program despite the fact that he'd been on a college bench less than two years and never been a head coach at any level. Ollie had skeptics then, and he's proved every one of them wrong. UConn had skeptics this weekend, and the Huskies shut every one of them up.
"What can they say now?" Olander asked. "I'd like to hear what they have to say now."
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