ARLINGTON, Texas — Shabazz Napier, son of Roxbury, pulsating leader and pulse of UConn’s basketball team, held one finger aloft after the Huskies advanced to the national championship game with a 63-53 victory over Florida on Saturday night.
It symbolized one more game to win. It also matched how many baskets Napier made in the second half.
The Huskies are marching on to the national championship Monday night deep in the heart of Texas because they’re far from just the Shabazz Show. It’s ‘Cats and dogs in the national title game, as UConn will face John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats, who scored a dramatic 74-73 victory over Wisconsin in the nightcap of an evening of exquisite college basketball.
The sentiment before the first national semifinal was that UConn’s chances were kind of like the host state for this Final Four — represented by a lone star. But UConn coach Kevin Ollie had lectured that everyone had the wrong four-letter word attached to his Huskies. It was about a complete T-E-A-M.
The best team won at AT&T Stadium — the best offensive team (UConn shot 55.8 percent from field) and the best defensive team (UConn held Florida to 38.8 percent shooting). UConn toppled the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in impressive fashion.
Junior forward DeAndre Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Guard Ryan Boatright had 13 points and locked down Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin. Senior forward Niles Giffey had 8 of his Teutonically efficient 11 points in the second half.
“We’ve been saying all year that we got a complete team,” said Boatright. “It’s not a one-man team. It’s not a two-man team. We got a complete team. They were double-teaming Shabazz a lot and, the unselfish player that he is, he was just giving it up and making plays for his teammates. Everybody stepped up.”
Nobody stepped up more than Daniels. Just like the court he played on, Daniels’s game was elevated for the Final Four. Daniels hit 3-pointers, he made midrange jumpers, he swooped in for alley-oops like a condor.
He should send the tape of this game to every general manager in the NBA.
Daniels once planned to play all his best basketball in Texas. He verbally committed to play for the Longhorns at one point before rescinding that decision. The folks in Storrs, Conn., are mighty happy he did.
Early on, it didn’t look like this would be a night for celebration in the Nutmeg State. UConn trailed, 16-4, after the first 11 minutes and looked like as if it was about to get blown out of Jerry Jones’s vanity venue.
It was the 6-foot-9-inch Daniels who applied the defibrillator paddles to the flatlining Huskies.
He drilled a long three to start a run of 11 straight points that ended when he nailed another 3-pointer, this one from the left corner. He demonstratively nodded his head afterward.
Daniels was saying, game on. Meanwhile, Florida hit the pause button, going more than five minutes without a score.
After the rough start, UConn hit six of its next nine shots and took its first lead of the game — 22-21 — with 3:18 left on an old-school 3-point play by Giffey. The Huskies would trail only once more, leading, 25-22, at the half.
Napier (12 points, 6 assists) pulled the strings of the game like a puppet master in the second half, tossing lobs to Daniels to eviscerate Florida’s 1-3-1 zone and committing grand theft basketball to create transition points.
Napier had one of those Rondo-esque games where a player dictates the action without scoring.
UConn made 14 field goals in the second half, all but one of them came from inside the paint. The one was Napier’s lone basket of the second half — a three with 18:09 left in the game.
His next points came on a pair of free throws with 3:53 left that boosted the Huskies’ lead to 55-47. He poked the ball away from Wilbekin with 2:48 left, leading to a Daniels jumper that gave UConn a 10-point lead with 2:34 left. Napier hit two more free throws to expand UConn’s lead to 12 with 2:04 left, and it was good night, Gators.
With shrink-wrap defense, Napier and Boatright sealed up the Gators. Florida had 11 turnovers and three assists, the fewest in a national semifinal since assists became an official stat in 1983-84.
“The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan.
Poor Florida, it lost only three games all season, but two of them were to the Huskies. Donovan’s juggernaut had won 30 straight since Dec. 2, when it dropped a 65-64 decision in Storrs on a Napier buzzer-beater.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t go out the way we would like to,” said Wilbekin. “But only one team is going to do that. We have to just to remember all the good things we did before this point. Even though it’s hard right now, I’m sure I’ll look back on this year and be proud of the guys standing next to me.”
Former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden once said during a string of heart-rending losses to Miami that his tombstone would say, “He played Miami.” Florida’s epitaph will say, “They played UConn.”
The Huskies will be underdogs again in the title game against Team One-and-Done.
“We feel like we’ve been doubted the whole season and definitely the whole tournament. People didn’t have us winning the first game. That’s what drives us,” said Daniels.
“When people say that, we just like to go out there and try to prove people wrong and let them know that UConn is back on top.”
UConn isn’t a lone-star team, but it now has a chance to be the lone team standing in the NCAA Tournament.