ARLINGTON, Texas - Jim Calhoun may no longer officially be the Connecticut basketball coach. But that doesn't mean a 71-year-old Hall of Famer with three NCAA championship rings doesn't still know a thing about motivating his former team.
As Friday's public workouts for the Final Four were winding down inside AT&T Stadium, Calhoun pulled aside UConn junior forward DeAndre Daniels and told him, "Nobody's talking about you."
Replied Daniels as he eyed the Huskies' showdown with No. 1 Florida: "Everybody will be talking about me after Saturday."
After scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in UConn's stunning 63-53 victory over the Gators, a win to snap a 30-game Florida win streak and move the Huskies into Monday night's national title game, Daniels was the talk of the town. Or at least of his head coach.
"DeAndre was huge for us," Kevin Ollie said. "He was pretty much unstoppable."
The Gators were who looked unstoppable early. They led 16-4 after nine minutes, their offense and defense clicking with equal efficiency. At that point, there was probably more interest in whether UConn would reach 10 points by halftime rather than who would win the game.
But then UConn woke up. Or relaxed. Or both. By the time the final TV timeout of the first half arrived with 3:18 to go, the Huskies owned a 21-20 lead.
Florida has won these kinds of games all season, their four seniors able to extricate themselves from all manner of tight spots. But with the eyes of Texas upon the Gators in the biggest game of their lives, they trudged to the locker room in a 25-22 hole courtesy of a 21-6 UConn run.
The single most telling stat of the opening half: Florida was 1-of-7 on 3-pointers while UConn was 4-of-7. In a cavernous stadium where depth perception was supposed to be an issue, one wondered if Florida could win if it couldn't shoot straight.
Yet the second half had also been the Gators' calling card all season. Down seven at Kentucky with 11 to go, they scored on 16 straight possessions to win by 10. They overcame deficits against Auburn and Tennessee down the stretch. Seemingly struggling in last week's second half against UCLA, their lead down to 56-55, the Gators ran off 10 straight points to coast comfortably home.
But this time it was UConn that showed the early second-half resolve. The Huskies built a 10-point lead. They held the Gators to zero 3-point field goals in the final half. In fact, after Michael Frazier swished a triple out of the left corner to open the game, Florida didn't hit another trey the rest of the night, missing its final nine tries.
Yet the Gators kept fighting, finally cutting the deficit to three points in the final five minutes.
Said Patric Young, who led the Gators with 19 point and five rebounds: "When we cut it back to three, I really thought we were going to take the game. But they just kept playing great."
It's never easy closing the door on a season, especially one as special as that orchestrated by Florida. The Gators won all 21 Southeastern Conference games they played, a league record. They won their first four NCAA tourney games by double figures. Three of the last four teams to do that had won the title.
And they had a 12-point lead in this one before the game was 10 minutes old.
But then the Huskies hustled harder and smarter. They attacked the rim. They didn't settle for 3-pointers. They smothered Frazier throughout, holding him to just two more field-goal attempts and no more points after the game's opening minute.
"And," said Wilbekin, his eyes moist, "a couple of us had bad shooting nights."
It happens. Especially in cavernous football stadiums that never should host basketball tournaments.
But that shouldn't wipe away all the Gators' good nights.
"We accomplished a lot," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "The other team just played better than us tonight."
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