ARLINGTON, Texas -- Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier walked off the court holding up his index finger after another unpredictable Huskies victory.
“One more game to go,” he said.
What was most fascinating about the Huskies’ 63-53 upset victory over top-ranked Florida in Saturday’s NCAA Final Four semifinal was that it took more than one player to get to the one last game of the season.
Through the tournament, Napier had been compared to former Connecticut guard and tournament miracle-worker Kemba Walker with four games of at least 19 points.
Against the Gators in front of a massive crowd at AT&T Stadium, it was Napier’s defense and his willingness to let teammates bail out the Huskies that saved them this time while ending Florida’s 30-game winning streak.
“We’ve been saying all year that we’re a complete team,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “It’s not a one-man team. It’s not a two-man team. Everybody stepped up.”
The Huskies (31-8) will advance to an event they never have lost: the championship game Monday night. They have won all three of their appearances in the NCAA tournament title game, most recently in 2011, and will play another underdog, eighth-seeded Kentucky.
Double-teamed and finishing with 12 points, Napier found open teammates such as forward DeAndre Daniels, who became the first player with 20 points and 10 rebounds in a national semifinal game since Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003.
Florida Coach Billy Donovan credited Napier and, especially, Boatright for their defense in keeping Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin out of the lane. Struggling with cramps as well, Wilbekin scored only four points with three turnovers and one assist as the Gators lost for the first time since the Huskies defeated them Dec. 2.
“The difference was Scottie couldn’t live in the lane like he had all year long for us,” Donovan said. “The difference in the game was our backcourt guys could not get into the lane at the rate Boatright and Napier could.”
The Gators (36-3) were known for their suffocating defense, but they were smothered into a season low in points and shot only 39% with only three assists and 11 turnovers.
“That’s crazy,” Wilbekin said. “That’s not usually what we do.”
The Huskies will be considered the underdog Monday when they face the winner of Saturday’s later Final Four game between second-seeded Wisconsin and eighth-seeded Kentucky.
They’re used to that.
They are only the third team seeded No. 7 or lower to reach the championship since the tournament expanded in 1985 and were considered an early-exit tournament team when brackets were released.
They are a season removed from the NCAA ruling them ineligible for the tournament. Coach Kevin Ollie was welcomed with skepticism when he took over two seasons ago from legendary Jim Calhoun.
“We’ve been through a lot with each other,” Boatright said. “We love each other and believe in each other even if nobody believed in us.”
The Huskies also were doubted at the start of the game against Florida, when they fell behind 16-4 and Napier didn’t land a shot until more than 16 minutes had passed.
They used an 11-0 run to climb back into the game and outscored the Gators 59-37 the rest of the game.
“We’ve been through a lot of dog fights,” Napier said. “When we were down, we just looked at each other and said we have to ante up.”
And now there’s only one game remaining.
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