Ryan Boatright (AP Photo)

UConn beat Florida because they played Florida’s game, only better

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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.

UConn won 63-53.

“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.”

“People did.”

No. 2 Villanova clinches Big East title with win over No. 23 Creighton

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 25: Kris Jenkins #2 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Justin Patton #23 of the Creighton Bluejays in the first half at the Pavilion on February 25, 2017 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova continued its dominance of the modern Big East on Saturday as the No. 2 Wildcats made a late charge to secure a 79-63 home win over No. 23 Creighton.

By clinching at least a share of the Big East regular season crown, Jay Wright’s program has now won four consecutive regular-season conference titles as they try to make another push towards the postseason.

Eric Paschall led a balanced Villanova scoring effort with 19 points while Josh Hart (15 points), Kris Jenkins (14 points) and Mikal Bridges (11 points) also finished in double-figures. The late push at the end was a good sign that Villanova might have shaken off a recent sluggish stretch that included a home loss last game to Butler and an uninspired first half against Creighton.

There were also times during Villanova’s win on Saturday where they didn’t look fully engaged and Creighton was right with them. Maybe it was partly because of the emotion of Senior Day, but while the Wildcats are still a heavy favorite to land a top seed and make it back to the Final Four, there are also some concerns about depth and health at this point in the season.

The Wildcats have been able to withstand the rib injury and five-game absence of veteran big man Darryl Reynolds, but it does seem like this team might be getting a bit tired entering the stretch run. Villanova was only 4-for-19 from three-point range on their home floor on Saturday while Hart is just 1-for-9 from the free-throw line in his last two games.

That could mean a cold stretch but it could also mean some tired legs. Thankfully for Villanova, they only have one regular-season game next week on the road at a Georgetown team that has lost back-to-back games to DePaul and St. John’s. Coupled with the early bye in the Big East tournament and the Wildcats should get some time to rest and recover over the next few weeks.

It’ll be interesting to see if Villanova comes out with any kind of intensity against Georgetown — with nothing really to play for — or if they try to put away a reeling Hoyas team early.

SATURDAY’S SNACKS: North Carolina clinches share of ACC title; Kentucky tops Florida on Monk’s huge half

of the Florida Gators during the game Kentucky Wildcats at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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SATURDAY’S THINGS TO KNOW

The ACC saw No. 8 North Carolina win on the road as they handled Pitt to claim at least a share of the ACC regular season conference title. CBT’s Rob Dauster has more on why this season might be Roy Williams’ best coaching job yet.

Things became a little bit clearer in the SEC as No. 11 Kentucky rallied behind a monster second half from freshman Malik Monk (30 of 33 points in second half) to beat No. 13 Florida. On a day in which De’Aaron Fox was out with injury, Monk and freshman Bam Adebayo (18 points, 15 rebounds) combined to give the Wildcats the conference lead with a week left. Dauster has more on Monk and Kentucky’s prospects heading into March.

Defending national champion Villanova clinched at least a share of the Big East regular season title as the No. 4 Wildcats used a late push to run past No. 23 Creighton. A balanced effort helped the Wildcats bounce back from this week’s loss against Butler as Eric Paschall led with 19 points.

STARRED

Virginia’s offense — The Cavaliers were in a mighty slump during their four-game losing streak as the Cavaliers had failed to crack 55 points during the last three. That changed during a win Saturday on the road at N.C. State. Virginia shot 11-for-16 from three-point range (68.8 percent) and freshman Kyle Guy had more points in this one (19) than he did in his previous five games (17).

Malik Monk, Kentucky — Erupting in the second half was the freshman guard as he totaled 33 points in the Wildcats’ important SEC home win over visiting Florida. Monk only had three points at halftime and showed why he’s the country’s most electric player with just a few strong minutes to help Kentucky rally. Monk was 5-for-7 from three-point range and also added five assists and four rebounds.

RELATED: Get caught up on all of today’s bubble action

REST OF THE TOP 25

  • Surviving on the road was No. 12 West Virginia as they won by a point over TCU in Big 12 play. Jevon Carter paced the Mountaineers with 15 points.
  • Playing in front of former head coach Larry Brown, No. 17 SMU ran out to an early lead on UConn and never looked back. The Mustangs had 20 points from Shake Milton in the AAC road win as they’ve won 11 straight.
  • Looking more like the program we’ve seen the past few years, No. 18 Virginia played much better offensively in an ACC road win at N.C. State. Freshman Kyle Guy broke out with 19 points while Devon Hall (18 points) and London Perrantes (16 points) also played well.
  • Winning on the road hasn’t been easy for No. 19 Florida State this season but they held off Clemson to likely eliminate the Tigers from NCAA tournament contention. The Seminoles had 15 points from Xavier Rathan-Mayes in the win.
  • Continuing to pile up double-digit wins is No. 25 Wichita State as they ran past Missouri State for a Missouri Valley Conference road win. Landry Shamet had 23 points for the Shockers while Shaquille Morris had 20 points.

NOTABLE

  • The plunge continued for Georgetown as they fell to St. John’s after losing to DePaul earlier in the week. Freshman Shamorie Ponds led the Red Storm with 24 points, becoming the third St. John’s freshmen to register 500 total points in a season.
  • In the Big Ten, Minnesota beat Penn State for a home win as Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason each had 16 points.
  • South Carolina snapped a three-game losing streak with a blowout home win over Tennessee. P.J. Dozier had 19 points to pace the Gamecocks.
  • Oklahoma State continued its recent surge with an easy home Big 12 win over Texas Tech. The Cowboys had 17 points from Jeffrey Carroll and 15 points each from Jawun Evans and Phil Forte.
  • Winning on the road in convincing fashion was Illinois State as the Redbirds ran past Northern Iowa. As a team right on the bubble, the Redbirds are now co-Missouri Valley Conference champs with Wichita State heading into Arch Madness.
  • Also hovering on the bubble is Seton Hall as they held off a late charge from DePaul for a Big East road win.

Malik Monk scores 30 in second half to lead No. 11 Kentucky past No. 13 Florida

LEXINGTON, KY - FEBRUARY 25:  Malik Monk #5 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates during the game against the  Florida Gators at Rupp Arena on February 25, 2017 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The reason why No. 11 Kentucky is still a national title contender, the reason why no one will ever be able to say that this team cannot get to a Final Four regardless of how much they have struggled over the course of the last month of the season, is Malik Monk.

He’s also the reason why that run isn’t all that likely.

Simply put, he’s college basketball’s single-most unstoppable force, and, once again, he showed us all why on Saturday. Monk scored 30 of his 33 points after halftime and added six assists as the Wildcats outscored No. 13 Florida 32-14 in the final 13 minutes of a 76-66 win that put them in the driver’s seat for the SEC regular season title.

The Gators and the Wildcats entered Saturday tied for first in the league at 13-2. Florida was able to jump out to early leads in both halves, but it was Kentucky that took control down the stretch. Much of that credit goes to Monk, whose shooting brought an energy to Rupp Arena that we haven’t seen in a while and brought on an effort defensively that doesn’t always show up when Kentucky takes the floor.

For a while during the second half, Kentucky looked like the team that we saw early in the season despite the fact that De’Aaron Fox wasn’t playing due to a knee bruise. Their athletes were flying around defensively, they were getting out and running in transition, they were throwing down crazy dunks. That’s the way they played in November and December, when they were scoring in the 90s on a nightly basis and beating teams like Arizona State by 46 points.

That coincided with the time that Monk caught fire.

It’s not just energy that he brings. It’s not just the confidence you see Kentucky’s players get when he’s draining 30-footers like they’re free throws. When he’s scoring, it opens everything up for them on the offensive end of the floor. He’s a shooter with gravity, dragging defenders with him, and he’s a willing and capable enough passer to be able to find open teammates when he puts the ball on the floor. That Kentucky was able to put this kind of a run on a very good Florida team tells you all you need to know about how dangerous they can be.

But here’s the issue: to get to a Final Four, Kentucky, who seems likely to end up around a No. 3 or No. 4 seed, is going to have to beat three really good teams in a row. To win a national title, they’re going to have to do it five straight times. Can Monk catch fire for three straight weeks?

Since the start of the new year, Monk has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games just once — one of those games was a lost at Tennessee — and it’s probably worth noting that the best win Kentucky has in a game where Monk finished below his season scoring average is probably Arkansas at home.

There are a couple of x-factors here, the most obvious of which is De’Aaron Fox getting back to full strength. Between rolled ankles, bruised knees and illnesses, Fox just hasn’t looked like himself for a month. When he’s right, he can be a difference-maker, as can Bam Adebayo, who went for 18 points and 15 boards against a Florida team playing without John Egbunu. He had 22 points and 15 boards against Missouri on Wednesday, and has been playing his best basketball of the season the last couple of weeks.

It should go without saying that Kentucky is better when those two are better. It reduces their reliance on one player doing something that, statistically, is not all that likely.

But they aren’t what makes Kentucky dangerous.

That’s Monk.

He’s good enough that he can literally carry Kentucky to a win over anyone.

But unless Kentucky can find a way to be consistently good on the nights where the inconsistently great Monk isn’t, it’s hard to imagine them making a run to Phoenix.

Milton scores 20 to help No. 15 SMU beat UConn

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 17:  Semi Ojeleye #33 celebrates with Shake Milton #1 of the Southern Methodist Mustangs against the Pittsburgh Panthers in the second half during the 2K Classic at Madison Square Garden on November 17, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) Shake Milton had 20 points and seven rebounds to lead No. 15 SMU over UConn 69-61 on Saturday.

The Mustangs (25-4, 15-1 American Athletic Conference) won their 11th straight and haven’t lost since Jan. 12 at Cincinnati. Semi Ojeleye had 16 points, Ben Moore added 15 and Sterling Brown had 11.

The Huskies (14-14, 9-7), who have dropped two straight after a four-game winning streak, were led by Kentan Facey’s 15 points. Freshman Christian Vital and Vance Jackson each added 14, while Rodney Purvis had 11.

The Mustangs rode the hot shooting of Milton, who made 6 of 7 from 3-point range, to lead 41-30 at halftime. SMU led by as many as 16 points, with Milton’s fifth 3-pointer giving it a 31-15 lead with 8:04 to play.

Milton scored just two points in the Mustangs’ previous win, a 76-66 decision over Houston on Feb. 18.

SMU shot 50 percent from the field and led by double digits for almost the entire final 13:28 of the half. Vital’s 3-pointer with 34 seconds left made it 39-30, but Moore closed the half with a dunk.

The Mustangs survived some foul trouble in the half, with Ojeleye and Brown sitting for extended periods with two fouls apiece.

UConn shot just 11 for 32 in the half, with the starting backcourt of Purvis and Jalen Adams a combined 3 for 16. Adams missed the final 2:58 of the half with a left ankle sprain and did not return.

Without Adams, UConn tried climbed within 57-52 with 9:20 to play, but the Mustangs answered with a 9-2 run to regain control.

BIG PICTURE

SMU: The Mustangs and No. 15 Cincinnati are vying for the top seed in the AAC Tournament, but it will come down to the wire. The teams split in the regular season.

UConn: The Huskies are looking to lockup a top-five seed in the AAC Tournament, but could be in trouble if Adams is out for an extended period of time. Vital and Purvis are the only healthy guards left.

UP NEXT

SMU finishes the regular season at home with Tulsa and Memphis.

UConn closes at East Carolina and Cincinnati.

More AP college basketball: http://www.collegebasketball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25.

No. 18 Virginia snaps 4-game skid, beats NC State 70-55

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - FEBRUARY 20: Marial Shayok #4 of the Virginia Cavaliers shoots a three point shot during Virginia's game against the Miami Hurricanes at John Paul Jones Arena on February 20, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo by Chet Strange/Getty Images)
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RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) Freshman Kyle Guy scored 19 points to help No. 18 Virginia snap out of an offensive funk to beat North Carolina State 70-55 on Saturday, ending a four-game skid.

Devon Hall added 18 points for the Cavaliers (19-9, 9-7 Atlantic Coast Conference), who shot 49 percent and made 11 of 16 3-pointers – a huge change from missing shot after shot during three particularly ugly offensive performances coming in.

It was Virginia’s longest losing streak since losing nine straight during coach Tony Bennett’s first season in 2009-10. But the Cavaliers led 35-21 by halftime, pushed that to 19 early after halftime and led by double figures nearly the entire second half.

The Wolfpack (15-15, 4-13) made a last-stand run to get within 59-51, only to see London Perrantes bury a 3-pointer with 5:04 left then Hall put back his own miss to push the margin back to 13.

N.C. State got no closer than 10 again in the final regular-season home game for coach Mark Gottfried. The school announced earlier this month that he won’t return next year after a once-promising season completely unraveled.

Freshman Dennis Smith Jr. scored 13 points but made just 4 of 14 shots for N.C. State, which shot 32 percent and made 7 of 27 3s (26 percent).

BIG PICTURE

Virginia: Virginia got its shot back, for a game at least. The Cavaliers had shot just 32 percent in its last three games while making 10 of 52 3-pointers (19 percent). They need this performance badly.

N.C. State: N.C. State finished its home regular-season schedule at 2-7 in ACC games, just one of many reasons for the Wolfpack’s disappointing season that ultimately cost Gottfried his job.

UP NEXT

Virginia: The Cavaliers get a quick turnaround to host No. 8 North Carolina on Monday.

N.C. State: N.C. State plays its regular-season finale Wednesday at Clemson.

Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Top25