Revisiting the NCAA semifinals

RONALD MARTINEZ / GETTY IMAGES Shabazz Napier was a force at both ends of the floor vs. Florida.
RONALD MARTINEZ / GETTY IMAGES Shabazz Napier was a force at both ends of the floor vs. Florida.
Posted: April 08, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas - The first game of the Final Four predictably was mostly about defense, the second game about offense, just two completely different ways to score efficiently. The first was over long before it was official, the second not until the final shot was launched.

GAME 1 Connecticut 63, Florida 53

UConn looked completely lost for 11 minutes, trailing 16-4 after shooting 2-for-9 with six turnovers, unable to run any kind of offense. Florida looked every bit the best defensive team in the country, the team that had won 30 straight games, that was the No. 1 overall seed.

The ball pressure

UConn's guards, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, get a lot of pub for their offense, but they put serious pressure on the ball themselves. And Florida simply could not handle it. Once the game turned when UConn scored 11 points on four possessions, it turned completely.

The tactics

Whatever Florida coach Billy Donovan tried, UConn had an answer. Go 1-3-1 zone, throw lobs over the top. Bring pressure into the backcourt, attack it. UConn's offense was diversified - at the rim, from the three-point line, at the free-throw line. The Gators, so calm in so many situations, rarely played from behind all season. When it became obvious they were never going to catch up, they got demoralized.

The finish

Over the final 15 minutes, UConn (31-8) made 11 of 12 shots and eight of eight free throws, absolutely shredding the nation's most efficient defense without making a single three. It was a clinic in how to protect a lead.

The heroes

DeAndre Daniels (20 points, 10 rebounds) has been an inside/outside matchup problem the whole tournament. The Gators could not guard him.

Napier, who only took six shots, was still a force with six assists and four steals while always being the coolest man in the Jerry Jones Dome (NCAA-record 79,444 fans filling every seat). Boatright had 13 points and six rebounds. The guards had nine assists against three turnovers. Niels Giffey, who has lost his three-point shot, found the rest of his game with 11 points, many at key moments.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie still has not lost an NCAA Tournament game and was on top of everything. When his players looked lost, he just kept imploring them to hang. When they got in front, he had his team ready for every situation.

Hard way to go

UConn was favored over Saint Joseph's and has been the underdog in its last four games. In order, the Huskies have beaten the tournament champions from the Atlantic 10 (St. Joe's), the Big East regular-season champion (Villanova) and the tournament champions from three of America's five strongest leagues - Iowa State (Big 12), Michigan State (Big Ten) and Florida (SEC). Now, they get to take on the preseason No. 1 (Kentucky) for a chance at the school's fourth national championship, all since 1999.

Numbers to consider

The game had just 59 possessions . . . UConn scored 38 points on 32 second-half possessions, a sensational 1.2 points per possession . . . UConn was 13-for-17 inside the arc in the second half . . . Florida had three assists and 11 turnovers . . . Terrence Samuel came off the UConn bench and was a plus-15 . . . Florida made a three on its first possession and never made another . . . The Gators' Patric Young and Casey Prather were 13-for-23, their teammates 6-for-26 . . . Boatright and Napier had those 25 points and nine assists while the Gators' backcourt of Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin had seven points, one assist and four turnovers. Wilbekin, who lived in the lane all season, just could not get there against the Huskies.

GAME 2

Kentucky 74, Wisconsin 73

The first shot Kentucky took was a made three from James Young. The last shot Kentucky took was a made three from Aaron Harrison. The grand total of made Wildcat threes the rest of the game? Zero.

Of course, they only took three more. They were too busy driving the ball to the rim, throwing the ball to the rim, blasting the ball through the rim.

The second semi was a demonstration of two ways to play the game and arrive at the same result. Wisconsin was trying to make it a mathematical equation. Kentucky was trying to make it about brute force.

The Badgers made eight threes and 19 free throws, outscoring the Wildcats from the two lines, 43-20. That differential will win just about every time, unless the other team, in this case Kentucky, wins the lane battle, 46-24.

The avalanche

Wisconsin (30-8) really could not have played much better when it led 34-25 and was scoring 1.36 points per possession. The young Wildcats (29-10) could have cracked then, or later. But after coach John Calipari called a timeout 59 seconds into the second half, they unleashed a tidal wave on the Badgers, scoring 15 straight points.

The next comeback

Wisconsin had missed 13 of 15 shots spanning the halves and trailed, 51-43. Naturally, it made eight of its next nine shots to set up a finish that had everything but a buzzer-beater.

The hero

So Andrew Harrison commits a terrible foul on Traevon Jackson that looks like it is going to cost his team the game, even though Jackson becomes the first Badger to miss a free throw after his team had made 17 straight. Jackson looks like the hero with two makes.

Only Andrew's twin Aaron, under solid hands-up-high pressure from ace defender Josh Gasser, rises up from several steps behind the three-point line on the left wing and somehow guides the game-winner into the basket.

It always looked left, but somehow, hit the inside part of the left side of the rim and rattled home.

How do you explain it? You don't. It was Aaron who made the key three from the corner against Louisville and the game-winning three against Michigan, also from the deep left wing, maybe slightly closer to the top of the key. The kid is fearless, and when it keeps happening it becomes a pattern.

The last shot

Jackson is not even close to Wisconsin's best shooter, but he desperately wants to take the last shot. It has resulted in a few game-winners, but it does make him easier to guard late. He is not passing. He roared down the court after Harrison's three, got a fairly good look from 15 feet, but it was always off line.

Numbers to consider

Wisconsin was right on its national-best season average of eight turnovers. Kentucky, however, had only four, beating the Badgers at their own game . . . Kentucky shot 50 percent and got 43 points from its frontline of Young, Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson . . . UK got 1.21 points per possession and obviously needed every one . . . Wisconsin got 21 points from its bench, which really should have been sufficient to win. And it probably would have been against any team but Kentucky . . . The Wildcats have won their last four games by a combined 11 points.


Email: jerardd@phillynews.com

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