The NCAA Final Four is set, and looking toward the Florida Gators and the UCONN Huskies matchup begins with a breakdown of their respective roads to the national semi-finals. While the overall number one seed Gators finished right alongside Wichita State as one of the two most dominant teams of 2013-14, no. 7 Connecticut’s season met with a few more hiccups.
The Huskies opened up the NCAA season strong, reeling off their first nine games, including victories over Maryland in the season opener and Indiana. UCONN’s most thrilling non-conference matchup came in a 65-64 buzzer-beater over then no. 15 Florida Dec. 2. The Gators had already lost to Wisconsin coming in and Connecticut was no. 12 and climbing at 7-0, but narrowly survived three one-point victories that could have easily gone the other way.
Very little separated these two in their first meeting. Florida connected on 49.0 percent from the floor to UCONN’s 43.4 percent, but the Huskies more than made up for the disparity by hitting 11 of 24 from outside the arc to the Gators’ 3 of 9. Connecticut was also at a considerable size disadvantage, however, they were able to counter their opponent’s superior size with strong guard play on the perimeter. Namely, that of senior G Shabazz Napier, who finished with 26 points and single-handedly stole the victory with a four-point play that cut the Gator lead to one with 34 seconds remaining, as well as the jumper at the buzzer that won it.
UCONN would finish its non-league slate with a record of 11-1, losing only to Stanford 53-51. AAC play was a mix of high and lows for the Huskies as they would drop three of their first five conference games and finish the slate in third place with a 10-6 record, losing to Louisville in the conference championship game for the third time this season. And their NCAA Tournament thus far has been rife with drama. After outlasting tenth-seeded St. Joseph’s 89-81 in overtime in the second round, UCONN topped second-seeded Villanova 77-65 in their only double-digit victory of the tourney. A five point win over third-seed Iowa State in the Sweet Sixteen and a 60-54 victory over four-seed Michigan State in the Elite Eight would land them in the Final Four, giving fourth-year head coach Kevin Ollie a shot at his first national title.
Meanwhile, Florida’s 2013-14 was stained just twice. Along with the loss to Connecticut, the Gators lost 59-53 at then no. 20 Wisconsin Nov. 12, meaning they have faced each of the other three Final Four teams at least once, and Kentucky three times. Florida has not lost since Dec. 2, taking twenty-three straight en route to the SEC regular season and tournament crowns. That dominance has continued in the NCAA Tournament with double-digit wins over Albany and Pitt in the second and third rounds and UCLA and Dayton in the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.
Stat lines from their only two losses on the season are indicative of one thing: the Gators have the upper hand against anyone in the nation. And despite what happened when these two met earlier in the season, they will have the upper hand here as well. Napier has carried the Huskies to the Final Four averaging 23.2 ppg, while Florida has at least three players in seniors Casey Prather Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young that can dominate some facet of the game. The Gators firepower should prove to be the difference.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat