ARLINGTON, Texas — For five months, Shabazz Napier has stuck to his story. The Connecticut Huskies are about more than just him.
"We’re not a one-man team," the senior point guard has said countless times.
Maybe now we'll believe him.
Connecticut advanced to the NCAA title game with a 63-53 victory over No. 1 overall seed Florida in the first of two national semifinal games Saturday at AT&T Stadium—and Napier, a first-team All-American, was hardly the main reason.
Napier turned in a solid performance with 12 points, six assists and four steals. But it was a 20-point, 10-rebound effort from junior DeAndre Daniels that sparked Connecticut the most.
Ryan Boatright (13 points) and Niels Giffey (11) also reached double-figures for a Huskies squad that forced 11 Florida turnovers while holding the Gators to a 1-of-10 showing from three-point range.
"We feel like we have been doubted the whole season, definitely heading into the tournament when people didn't have us winning the first game," Daniels said of his team's mind-set. "But that's what drives us and everybody just is going out there. When people say that, we like to go out and try to prove people wrong and let them know that UConn's back on top."
Connecticut trailed 16-4 about 10 minutes into the game, but fought back to take a 25-22 lead at intermission.
"It’s a team game," Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. "They’ve invested in each other. Shabazz is the first one to tell you...it’s not just him."
Added Boatright: "We have been through a lot with each other. This group of guys has been together for three years, and in them three years, we have been through a lot. We love each other and we believe in each other. Even if nobody believes in us, we believe in each other and we believe in our coaching staff. We got a lot of heart and a lot of pride for this university."
Making its first Final Four appearance since 2007, Florida entered Saturday's semifinal on a 30-game win streak. The last team to beat the Gators, ironically, was Connecticut back on Dec. 2 in Stoors. Napier hit a jumper at the buzzer to give his team a 65-64 win and enhance his reputation as the alpha dog on this Huskies squad.
Throughout the season, and especially during the NCAA tournament, Napier has drawn comparisons to former guard Kemba Walker, who almost single-handedly sparked Connecticut to the 2011 title.
"We want to create our own path," said Napier, who is averaging 21 points per game in NCAA tournament play. "We have been through a lot of dogfights and we continue to believe in each other.
"We didn’t point fingers when we were down 16-4. We just looked at each other and said we've got to put the pressure on and ante up, because this could be our last 40 minutes and we didn’t want that."
As much credit as Napier and his teammates deserve for Saturday’s victory, equal credit should go to their second-year coach.
Ollie pulled off the unlikely feat of getting a No. 7 seed to the NCAA title game by defeating a Hall of Fame coach (Michigan State’s Tom Izzo) in the Elite Eight and a future Hall of Famer (Billy Donovan) on Saturday.
Opponents were shooting just 39.9 percent against the Gators entering the Final Four, but Ollie devised the perfect game plan for the Gators' 1-3-1 zone. The Huskies made 55.8 percent of their shots Saturday. They were also tougher in the paint, winning the rebounding battle 28-27 against a Florida team that appeared to have an advantage down low.
Donovan was impressed with what Connecticut was able to do against his team offensively.
"But the biggest difference in UConn’s team (since December) is that they have turned into a great defensive team," Donovan said. "I think that was missing from a good portion of their season."
Indeed, Florida shot just 38.8 percent Saturday. Ollie, though, dismissed the notion that Connecticut’s strong defensive play hasn’t been there all season.
"We’ve been playing great defense all year," he said. "We’ve been holding our opponents to under 39 percent, and that’s one of our goals.
"Of course we’ve had some bumps in the road. The Louisville game (a 33-point loss on March 8) was a bump in the road. A lot of people said that was going to destroy us. But our team thought it promoted us to get better."
That was certainly the case Saturday, when Connecticut continued its unlikely postseason run against a Florida squad that was favored to win the title. Napier, as always, was a big reason.
But he wasn’t the only reason.
Just as he’s been telling us all along.
"We’re still dancing," Ollie said. "Hopefully we’ll be the only ones left on the dance floor Monday night."
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