UConn, down 12 early, rallies behind Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright, DeAndre Daniels
ARLINGTON, Texas - Connecticut was four months and about 1,700 miles removed from its victory over Florida earlier this season in the cozy confines of Gampel Pavilion, but in a season come full circle, the Huskies proved they could do it again.
They fell behind by 12 points in the first 11 minutes Saturday night, but it was as if they were playing rope-a-dope before putting together a remarkable turnaround.
Guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright played tough defense and found forward DeAndre Daniels with their passes on offense as UConn ended the No. 1 Gators' 30-game winning streak in dominant fashion, 63-53, at packed AT&T Stadium.
The Huskies will face Kentucky, a 74-73 winner over Wisconsin in the late semifinal, in Monday night's championship game.
Comparisons to the 2011 UConn team that came from nowhere to make a phenomenal run to the national title behind Kemba Walker are natural, but Napier said: "We have different players and a different coach. We want to win a championship like that team did, but we want to create our own path."
The Huskies (31-8) entered the game as the last team to beat Florida (36-3), as Napier's buzzer-beater gave UConn a 65-64 victory Dec. 2 in Storrs. But in the early going, UConn was unrecognizable against the pressure from Florida's defense as the Gators took a 16-4 lead.
Napier recognized that Florida's trapping defense was doing everything it could to get the ball out of his hands, so he complied by passing to Daniels and Boatright. They connected on back-to-back three-pointers, beginning a 21-6 run before halftime that put UConn ahead 25-22.
"We've been through a lot of dogfights, and we continued to believe in each other," said Napier, who had a modest 12 points but added six assists. "They were leaving DeAndre open by doubling , and we took advantage. DeAndre knocked down the three, and we knew what was going to happen next."
Added Boatright: "We didn't care who scored. We just needed points on the board. I tried to be the emotional leader on defense."
Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Boatright added 13 points, six rebounds and three assists, and Niels Giffey had 11 points. UConn shot 63.6 percent in the second half. Florida got 19 points from Patric Young and 15 from Casey Prather but shot only 38.8 percent.
Nothing Florida coach Billy Donovan said at halftime slowed the Huskies' momentum. They burst out of the second-half gate with six straight points and eventually pushed the lead to 37-27 on a layup by Boatright. The Gators cut the deficit to 41-38, but UConn quickly regained control.
It was a tough night for Gators guards Scottie Wilbekin (four points, 2-for-9 shooting) and Michael Frazier (three points, 1-for-3 shooting). They had only three assists as a team.
"The difference was that Scottie couldn't live in the lane like he had all year long for us," Donovan said. "He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright . . . and Napier, which inevitably made our offense very difficult . . . When you see three assists, that's a direct reflection of your guards."
Speaking of his team's three assists, Wilbekin said: "That's crazy. That's not usually what we do. All credit goes to their guards and the way they were denying and putting pressure on us. When we would get by them, we wouldn't keep the ball tight, and they would just reach from behind."
Donovan told Wilbekin he once had a similar night in the Final Four, trying to give him company in his misery. That was faint solace, but they at least knew Connecticut proved it is good enough to play for No. 1 Monday night.