|ESPN.com: NCAA Tourney 14||[Print without images]|
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Saint Joseph's essentially ran out of players in overtime.
Villanova was done in by another lousy shooting night.
Iowa State didn't have its offensive lynchpin, Georges Niang.
Michigan State was just off, maybe tired from a slugfest win against Virginia two nights before.
|Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier spearheaded UConn's defensive attack in the Huskies' win over Florida.|
And Florida didn't really play as well as it normally does.
That is one way to view Connecticut's steps toward its improbable appearance in the national championship game.
Here's another way, a more accurate way: The Huskies are really good.
It is more than time to stop saying that Connecticut has won its past five games for reasons other than Connecticut.
UConn isn't in the national championship game accidentally.
The Huskies got there on merit.
They did not hit a wild buzzer-beater to upset Florida, the NCAA tournament's overall No. 1 seed. They all but demoralized the Gators in their 63-53 win, beating one of the best defensive teams in the country with even better defense.
And really, that's what they've done the entire way, mixing up the perfect tournament cocktail: talent combined with brimming confidence and sprinkled with the nastiest on-ball defense March has witnessed.
"We were supposed to lose every game in the postseason," Ryan Boatright said. "We were supposed to lose every single one. We took that to heart. Every time we step on the court, we know it's us against the world."
That was the theme that carried the team as it walked, sprinted and even piggybacked its way from the court to the locker room. Boatright ran by, singing, "just one more, that's all," and behind him, assistant coach Glenn Miller laughed, "No one gave us a chance. No one. How about now?"
Usually, that sounds like a phony rallying cry concocted in a locker room to huddle up the troops.
This time, Connecticut is right.
No one did give the Huskies a chance. Five of us at ESPN.com were asked to pick national semifinalist winners. We were 0-for-5 in the first game.
No one picked the Huskies, continuing a theme that started in Buffalo, N.Y.
Saint Joe's, remember, had been steamrolling at the end of the regular season. Villanova, despite an early bounce from the Big East tournament, was a 2-seed, and Michigan State? Michigan State was supposed to win the whole thing.
Then, there came Florida -- the big, tough and rough Gators, a matchup nightmare for an undersized UConn team. That the Huskies had beaten the Gators earlier in the season was more of an aberration than a sign, a win after all that came with the addendum:
*Florida didn't have its entire roster available. Kasey Hill and Chris Walker did not play.
Yeah, so much for that.
The entirety of the Florida Gators, all 30 wins in a row of them, were available in this game and yet ...
Yet, the Huskies won the rebounding war (28 to 27); the Huskies scored more points in the paint (36 to 24) and, most telling of all, the Huskies -- not the Gators -- threw out the blanket on defense.
Florida shot 38 percent for the game, coughed up 11 turnovers and managed a measly three assists on 19 made baskets. The Gators stormed out to a 16-4 lead and then ran into a brick wall padded with barbed wire.
"On offense, we really couldn't get anything going," Scottie Wilbekin said. "They were being really aggressive, and we couldn't really get into our offense."
So much of this season has been about Shabazz Napier and his offense. Deservedly, I might add. Without Napier's buckets and poise, the Huskies aren't here.
But Napier's heroics have overshadowed what has really made this team so good, especially lately.
It's the defense.
The seeds were planted back in October, even if the players couldn't quite understand what it was their coach was farming.
Kevin Ollie opened practiced without any basketballs, instead putting his players through boot camp conditioning drills that felt more like track practice than hoops.
"The first day of practice, I almost passed out," Terrence Samuel said. "Kentan Facey did. He like fell to the ground. Now I see why he wants us to be the best conditioned team out there."
The Huskies' ability to partner all that fitness with flat-out meanness on defense has now all but silenced two pretty good backcourts.
A week ago, they put Keith Appling and Travis Trice on a milk carton. This time, the APB is out for Wilbekin and Hill.
Together, the two Florida guards shot 4-of-15 and coughed up seven turnovers. Napier, Boatright and Samuel frustrated, and almost toyed with, them, flicking the ball away from behind, snatching it outright in front.
"We heard it over and over again: Michigan State, Madison Square Garden was a home-court advantage," Ollie said. "We shot 34 percent in the Garden. What kind of advantage is that? We live and die on defense. You have to recognize that. We play tenacious defense. We play relentless defense. It's not always perfect, but we're going to play 40 [minutes] full."
If all of this sounds familiar, well, it should.
Three years ago, UConn won five games in five nights to win the Big East tournament and rode that fury all the way to a national title.
No one expected much of those Huskies, either, but really, those Huskies were more likely than this version. Along with Kemba Walker, that UConn team had Alex Oriakhi and Jeremy Lamb, relatively established starters.
Aside from Napier and Boatright, this team is a combo platter of newbies and role players handling bumped-up responsibilities.
"I think the similarity is that, in both cases, everyone thought we were dead," said Niels Giffey, one of three players to play on both teams. "That's what we heard anyway."
UConn has heard a lot of stuff this season.
And most of it has been wrong.