ARLINGTON, TEXAS – Shabazz Napier looked up toward the Connecticut fans in the crowd at AT&T Stadium and held up one finger.
The Huskies had just beaten overall No. 1 seed Florida 63-53 on Saturday in the Final Four. But Napier’s gesture had another meaning.
“One more to go,” the first-team All-American said.
The victory got them into Monday night’s title game against Kentucky and it was as good an effort as any team came up with this season against the Gators, who came in having won 30 straight games, a streak that started after a loss to the Huskies four months ago.
“We have been in a lot of dog fights,” Napier said. “We are just an experienced group. We believe in each other and continue to believe in each other . . . We are going to win. That is what we do.”
Especially against Florida.
The Gators lost only three times this season — once to Wisconsin in the second game of the season and twice to the Huskies. The first time was on Dec. 2 when a foul-line jumper at the buzzer by Napier gave UConn a 65-64 victory.
They didn’t have to wait that long to know they had this one.
The Huskies, the seventh seed in the East Regional, had outstanding games on both ends of the court.
Napier helped seal this game with about 2 minutes to play when he made two free throws for a 59-47 lead. That margin was the deficit the Huskies (31-8) faced in the opening minutes after a cold shooting start.
“I knew we was going to get back in the game. They knew we was going to get back in the game,” second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. “We live and die on defense and hopefully everybody understands that.”
With Ollie in a defensive stance himself most of the game, the Huskies sidetracked the Florida offense by shutting down point guard Scottie Wilbekin and 3-point specialist Michael Frazier II, who scored a combined seven points.
“UConn was very good with their pressure on our guards and we didn’t convert points,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “They scored a lot on as well. So all the credit goes to them.”
The Huskies were impressive on offense, shooting 55.8 percent (24 of 43) from the field against a team that allowed opponents to shoot 39.9 percent this season.
“Whomever I put in the game, it was positive and they were productive,” Ollie said.
DeAndre Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds for Connecticut, and it was his two 3-pointers in a span of 1:43 that helped ignite the Huskies after they had fallen behind 16-4.
“DeAndre was huge for us,” Ollie said. “He stepped up and really rebounded for us and was pretty much unstoppable.”
Napier, who leads the team in almost every category, finished with 12 points and six assists. He definitely got the better of Wilbekin in a matchup of senior point guards, both conference players of the year.
Napier had two key second-half steals on Wilbekin, both of which led to UConn baskets. Wilbekin was bothered by cramps throughout the game.
“It was right when the second half started. I was getting a little cramp, it wasn’t too bad,” Wilbekin said. “I got out of the game and got some ice and it wasn’t really a problem from then on.”
The Connecticut guards were. Florida had 11 turnovers and a season-low three assists.
“That’s crazy, that’s not usually what we do,” Wilbekin said. “All credit goes to them and their guards and the way they were denying and putting pressure on us.”
Kentucky wins thriller
Arlington Texas AP
No, this was not an instant replay, though it certainly is turning into a highlight loop that Aaron Harrison and his Kentucky teammates could get used to watching.
Harrison took a pass from his twin brother, Andrew, spotted up from NBA range and watched the ball rattle in for the lead with 5.7 seconds left Saturday night to lift the Wildcats to a 74-73 victory over Wisconsin in the Final Four.
It was a near carbon copy of his game-winner last weekend in the regional final against Michigan. It was every bit as big as the 3 he made the game before that to help Kentucky take the lead for good in the Sweet 16 against Louisville.
“You can’t be scared to miss, and you want to be that guy that wants to take the big shots,” Aaron Harrison said.
“He has that clutch gene,” Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker said.
Traevon Jackson had a last-second shot to try to beat the Wildcats (29-10), but the desperation jumper rimmed out, and once again Harrison found himself at the bottom of a dog pile at center court. Sophomore Alex Poythress’ leg bent backward in the scrum. He was icing his left knee afterward but said he’d be OK for Monday’s final.
Eighth-seeded Kentucky will play seventh-seeded UConn — the highest seed total to play for the title since they started putting numbers by the names back in 1979.
“I know how good they are, but I don’t know how they play,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of his next opponent.
Second-seeded Wisconsin (30-8) set a Final Four record by going 95 percent from the free-throw line — 19-for-20. But that one miss cost the Badgers dearly. Jackson got Andrew Harrison to jump into him while attempting a 3-pointer with 16.4 seconds left. His first free throw rimmed out, and — after he made the next two — Wisconsin had a 73-71 lead and Kentucky had the ball.
Any doubt where it was going?
“Coach said (he) wanted me to take the shot, my teammates have confidence in me, and I just fed off that,” Harrison said.