ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Final Four started so well for the Florida Gators. They were hitting shots, dictating tempo and playing solid defense to take a 16-4 lead midway through the first half. They looked like the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament. The Gators had bite.
But a gator can only chomp what it can catch. And all of a sudden, Connecticut guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright became annoying gnats. They batted balls, put pressure on Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin -- who makes the Gators offense go -- and shared the ball on offense. Three quick 3-pointers and swarming defense in the span of about two minutes changed the entire landscape of the game.
Florida just could not swat away the gnats. In the end, those gnats stopped the nation’s longest winning streak and ended the Gators’ championship hopes.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie calmed his team down after it fell behind by 12, drew up some quick pick-and-rolls and created open outside looks. An 11-0 run nearly erased Florida’s early advantage.
“We kept our composure,” Napier said. “We’ve been in so many dogfights. He said, ‘Guys, we’ve been in this position before.'”
It was clear that without Wilbekin’s ability to create scoring opportunities for himself or others by driving in the lane, Florida couldn’t sustain any kind of offensive momentum. Wilbekin finished with four points. Four. It was the second-lowest output of his season -- he scored just two against South Carolina in early March.
More telling were his three turnovers. Defensively, UConn poked, prodded and plugging the senior guard -- Boatright in particular -- and he had no answer. Florida couldn’t do anything from the outside, shooting 1-for-10 from the 3-point stripe, with just three attempts in the second half.
“Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he could all year for us,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “Every time we needed a big play, he was in the lane.”
But not on Saturday, which left Florida’s offense out of sync.
Donovan knows all too well what it’s like to come into the Final Four as the fuel that makes his offense go and not be able to hit the accelerator. The coach brought it up after Wilbekin exited the podium in the interview room deep in the tunnels of AT&T Stadium.
As a guard at Providence in the Final Four in 1987, Donovan came in on a roll. And Syracuse shut him down, holding him to 3-for-12 shooting and just eight points.
Like Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim did 27 years ago, UConn coach Kevin Ollie knew his team had to stop the creating guard. The Huskies did it with inspired play from Napier and Boatright, who shadowed Wilbekin and didn’t let him drive inside often.
Florida wasn’t able to move the ball like it had on offense at times this season, either. As a team, it had 11 turnovers and just three assists.
“Our assists-to-turnover ratio has always been pretty good,” Donovan said. “When you see three assists, that’s a direct reflection of our guards.”
Still, Florida was able to close what was a double-digit lead to three with 8:03 left and were in position to keep the momentum going.
“I thought we were there,” said senior center Patric Young, who was just 1-for-5 in the first half but finished with 19 points. “We were going to be able to, I think, change the game [and] take the lead back. But UConn was very good with their pressure on our guards, and we didn’t convert points.”
Turnovers hurt. Wilbekin had one moment after his team had cut the lead (Napier got his hand on the ball) which turned into a transition layup for Boatright, and the Huskies were able to keep the Gators are at least arm’s length for the rest of the game.
For seniors Young, Wilbekin and Will Yeguete, it ends a great season one game earlier than they wanted or expected.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t go out the way we would like to,” Wilbekin said. “But only one team is going to do that.”
UConn’s defense made sure it wouldn’t be the Gators.