ARLINGTON, Texas — The story all tournament long — all season long, really — was that the UConn Huskies were only going to go as far as Shabazz Napier was going to carry them. He was the reincarnation of Kemba Walker, a veteran, all-american point guard that took complete control of a supposedly overmatched UConn team, strapping them to his back and carrying them from an unremarkable regular season on a magical run to the Final Four.
That narrative played out to perfection for the first two weeks of the tournament. Napier was the East Regional’s Most Outstanding Player, averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 boards and 4.5 assists. The only reason he wasn’t named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player in the first two weekends was that it is an award that doesn’t exist.
Entering Saturday night’s bout with the Florida Gators, every single pundit told you that the only way the Huskies would be able to handle the behemoth that the Gators had become would be for Napier to go crazy. That didn’t happen. Shabazz didn’t score his first point for more than 15 minutes and finished with “just” 12 points, six assists and four steals.
And it didn’t matter.
“We had no chance, right?” UConn assistant Karl Hobbs told the media gathered outside the UConn locker as the Huskies left the floor and took their first steps towards playing for the program’s fourth national title. It wasn’t just Hobbs that felt that way, either. Walking through the UConn locker room, it was obvious that was something that had been made very clear to the players. The only people that thought UConn had a shot had an 860 area code.
“We like that everybody’s not believing in us and picking us to lose,” Ryan Boatright told NBCSports.com. “We were supposed to lose every game in the postseason. They had us losing every single one. We take that to heart and use it as fuel to our fire. Every time we step out on the court, it’s us against the world.”
It was Boatright that ended up being the difference maker in this game. DeAndre Daniels was the star, posting a 20-point and 10-rebound performance that may end up sending him off to the NBA Draft, but Boatright finished with 13 points, six boards and three assists, hitting a number of key buckets early in the second half and, more importantly, playing the kind of stellar on-ball defense that he did against Michigan State. “At my size, I can’t afford to lack on defense,” he said, and it certainly wasn’t lacking on Saturday.
Scottie Wilbekin is Florida’s best player. He was on a number of all-american teams and was named the SEC’s Player of the Year, which is a really long-winded way of saying the dude can ball. Against UConn, he had four points on 2-for-9 shooting with three turnovers and just a single assists. Kasey Hill, Florida’s other point guard, finished with four points and four turnovers on 2-for-6 shooting. Michael Frazier, Florida’s sharp-shooter, got just three looks at a three and made one of them.
Napier played a role in that, as did guys like Terrance Samuel and Lasan Kromah, but it was Boatright that did the heavy lifting.
“It all starts with Boatright,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said in regards to UConn’s defense. “He does a great job pressuring the ball.”
The irony is that UConn essentially beat Florida at their own game.
The Gators climbed their way to the No. 1 overall seed by playing smothering defense, particularly on the perimeter, and relying on a balanced, but limited at times, offensive attack spurred on by Wilbekin’s ability to make a play at the end of a clock.
UConn won this game because they were able to do just that, only more effectively.
After a slow start that saw UConn dig themselves a 16-4 hole more than 11 minutes into the game, the Huskies went on a 27-6 run because they were able to do three things: Napier and Boatright were able to turn the corner on ball-screen actions and get into the lane, UConn stopped turning the ball over and the Huskies were able to keep Florida off of the offensive glass. They took away opportunities for easy points in transition and on second chances, forcing the Gators to try and break down what has turned into a hellacious half court defensive team.
“The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. Every time we needed a big shot or a big play, whether against Arkansas or UCLA, he was in the lane. He had a really, really hard time getting in the lane around Boatright [and] Napier, which inevitably made our offense very, very difficult.”
“The biggest difference in UConn’s team, in my opinion, from seeing them in December and then watching them on tape is they have turned into a great defensive team.”
“Any time we can stop transition and make them play against our five we like our chances,” Boatright said.
At the other end of the floor, the Gators were able to limit Napier by switching on ball-screens and double-teaming him when the had the ball. Florida was daring the rest of UConn’s team to beat them, and they did.
The reward is a chance to play for a national title.
“We’re a complete team,” Boatright said as matter-of-factly as a player that just won a game in the Final Four can possibly speak. “It’s not a one player team, it takes an entire team to be in the national championship game. When Shabazz ain’t having the game that he’s normally having, people gotta step up.”