Some news and notes after UConn’s 63-53 victory over Florida in the NCAA semifinals Saturday night at AT&t Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Huskies will play Kentucky in the national championship game at 9:10 p.m. Monday. It’s the first time since 1966 neither team in national championship made the tournament the year before.
TURNING TO D: When times turn rough on offense, the Huskies have been able to rely on their defense to help turn them around. It happened again against the Gators after UConn fell behind 16-4 in the opening 10:12 while the Huskies shot 2-for-9 and committed six turnovers.
“We have been through a lot of dogfights and we continue to believe in each other,” UConn senior Shabazz Napier said. “When we were down 16-4 we just looked at each other and said we got to put the pressure on, ante up.”
The Huskies buckled down on defense, Napier’s steal leading to DeAndre Daniels’ 3-pointer with 8:49 left that ignited an 11-0 run. UConn hit the glass and clamped down on point guard Scott Wilbekin and the Gators’ shooters to take over the game.
“We just wanted to be relentless, make them uncomfortable,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “We wanted to challenge every dribble, every pass.”
The Gators were 2-for-10 in the final 9:47 of the first half and went into the locker room down 25-22. They would never retake the lead in the second half. Florida finished with just three assists and 11 turnovers, which UConn converted into 13 points. Napier had four of the team’s six steals.
SUDDEN IMPACT: Freshman Terrence Samuel never even played in a championship game at Victory Collegiate High School, but he was ready for the spotlight Samuel was in the lineup when UConn started to dig out of its 12-point hole in the first half and finished with four points, one assist and one rebound in 18 minutes.
“It hasn’t hit me yet, but it will hit me sooner than later,” Samuel said. “I never played for a championship in high school, and I think this is god paying me back for all my hard work. If you ask anyone else, they’ll tell you, all your hard work is paying off. In high school I never made it passed the Sweet 16, it’s just a blessing.
“I’m happy I game here, I happy to be a part of this team.”
When Ollie tossed Samuel into the lineup for the second time, with 9:07 left in the first half, the freshman went right to work, helping to feed Ryan Boatright for a 3-pointer and also driving the lane for a layup to cut Florida’s lead to 16-12.
“I just wanted to come in there and be a game changer,” Samuel said. “I did that today. I came in and we went on a run. I just wanted to come in and get stops. We call it a kill when you get three stops in a row and we got like three kills in a row and then we were back in the game.”
HUSKY-MANIA: With two teams in the Final Four, nobody is a busier Husky supporter this weekend than UConn AD Warde Manuel, who will be juggling his time between here and Nashville for the women’s game or games.
“I have some traveling to do,” he said. “I love it. It’s not something you’d hear me complain about it, so I look forward to going to Nashville tomorrow and coming back on Monday.”
The No. 1-ranked women’s team was expected to reach the Final Four, but Ollie’s team has been a pleasant surprise for everyone affiliated with the school.
“It’s been a great surprise,” he said. “I very excited the job that Kevin, the coaches and the student-athletes have done.”
Of course the with the team’s success comes rumblings that Ollie might be lured to the NBA by someone. The Los Angeles Times ran a column Friday suggesting Ollie would be a great fit to coach the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Kevin knows how I feel about him,” Manuel said. “I look forward to talking to him when this season is over and I want to keep him here at UConn. He knows exactly how I feel about him. How much I love him. How much I appreciate him and what he’s done.
“I want him to remain as the head coach of the UConn Huskies.”
A PROUD MENTOR: Jim Calhoun won three national titles with the Huskies before turning the program over to Ollie and he sounded like a proud papa about the team after beating the Gators.
“One of the reasons I used for us to win was the 30-game winning streak,” said Calhoun, afterwards in the UConn locker room. “When they got down they played like a 30-game-win-streak team who was protecting something. We weren’t protecting something, we were attacking something. Protecting and attacking are two different words.
“Billy is one of the best coaches in the country. He’s going to win three or four national championships. He’s terrific. I love his teams, but that team is not as fluent and as quick as Connecticut.”
Calhoun said one of the things that worked in UConn’s favor was the Huskies turned the game to favor their style of play.
“We made the game, much as we did the Michigan State game, get into that kind of game,” he said. “We dictated it. It wasn’t Tom Izzo or Billy Donovan, all those coaches get way too much credit and too much criticism many times, but your players do it. I agree you have to set them in the right positions.”
And the Huskies enter Monday night in the right position, according to their former coach.
“We’re a very dangerous team because we score points, we control the ball, make fouls and can really shoot the ball,” Calhoun said. “I think the perimeter defense is pretty special. Right now it’s pretty special.”
ROAD TRIP: Sophomore Rodney Purvis finally had the chance to see a UConn road game in person this season. The Huskies gave their teammate, who has to sit out the season after transferring from North Carolina State, quite a show.
“It was great just being behind the bench with my mom,” Purvis said. “It’s the first time seeing my mom in a while, too, so it was great. Plus to actually get up and come down here to actually support the team.”
When the Huskies fell behind 16-4, Purvis stayed confident the Huskies could bounce back. He also would not have minded suiting up and lending a hand in the comeback.
“Yeah, but at the same time I just knew we were good,” Purvis said. “We’ve learned a lot. We’ve battled. We’ve had several games where we were down and came back, so I just knew we were to prepared for this game. Sure there were going to be jitters being the Final Four, but I knew we were going to be fine.”
Purvis has had the opportunity to bond with his teammates off the court in Texas as well, spending time with them in the game room at the hotel.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with the guys having a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m just enjoying this experience.”