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 dogfights,” 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’ (36-3) only losses this season came 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, will meet Kentucky, the eighth seed in the Midwest, on Monday night. There have only been two No. 8 seeds to reach the championship game since the field expanded in 1985 – Villanova in 1985 and Butler in 2011. Connecticut is the first No. 7 seed to reach the title game.
This will be the first time since 1966 that two teams that weren’t in the tournament the year before meet for the title. The teams that year were Texas Western and Kentucky. Connecticut was ineligible last season and Kentucky played in the NIT.
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 early after a cold shooting start.
“I knew we was going to get back in the game,” second-year coach Kevin Ollie said. “We live and die on defense.”
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.
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.
Napier 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.