John F. SilverThe nets had just been cut down, the fans hadn’t even filed out of MSG yet when the questions about Florida came.
The Huskies got about 20 minutes to celebrate their Final Four berth before it turned to the game this Saturday in “North Texas”, home of the North Texas Cowboys in Arlington.
What is intriguing about the matchup are two things.
1. Top-seed Florida has won 30-straight games.
2. The last team to beat Florida was…UConn.
Dec. 2, 2013 — UConn 65, Florida 64.
These NCAA tournaments have a funny way of working out. Florida has lost two games, to UConn and Wisconsin, both Final Four teams and beat Kentucky, the fourth Final Four team, three times.
The Huskies outplayed Florida that day, though the Gators were short-handed, and UConn needed this miracle to beat them.
That was a seminal moment for UConn and Florida.
UConn knew it belonged with the nation’s best. Florida, not happy about the loss or Napier’s celebration and sprint to the locker room, haven’t lost since.
That game was Dec. 2. The two teams play again on April 5th.
Ollie knows exactly what he’s up against.
“We took a lot from that game,” Ollie said Monday on a conference call. “The resiliency that we had, we got down in that game and came back. We played hard. We played scrappy. They are a tough team to face. Their experience in being in Elite 8s three straight years, now finally making it to the Final Four. How hard they play, the respect I have for Coach Donovan is out of this roof, the way he’s built that program, took it over, took it to another level.”
Ollie, who remarked at the time of the game that Florida has muscles-upon-muscles, loves how the Gators play.
“They just play so hard. They don’t give an inch on the defensive end and offensive end. They play fast‑break ball, but then they play fast‑break at halfcourt, too,” Ollie said. “What I mean by that, playing fast‑break in the full court and halfcourt, every cut they make is hard. Every screen they set is hard. Just teaching our guys that you can’t take a play off, you can’t relax. For us to beat a team like that, we couldn’t relax not one minute.”
The game against Florida also sticks in the mind of the players. Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and others made an impression. Wilbekin missed the final 3:01 with an ankle injury and wasn’t on the floor for the final shot.
“From that game I just remember a lot of scrambling on defense,” guard Ryan Boatright said. “We were helping each other. Coach showed us the tape before we started winning these games, we got back together and that tape is crazy. We were everywhere, we were helping each other, we were closing out right and we were rebounding the basketball. So when we got to go out there and play them, we got to play great defense.”
Florida coach Billy Donovan, searching for his third national championship, thinks the loss helped Florida. The Gators haven’t been challenged much down the stretch and beat fellow Final Four participant Kentucky four times.
“It was a great game. It was a great environment,” Donovan said. “I think it was a game that really helped our team going forward.
“Napier made some great plays coming down the stretch. He made a three‑point play. We fouled him on a three‑point shot, ended up being a four‑point play and he made the game winner. There were a lot of ebbs and flows in the game. We jumped out on a good lead, they took the lead back. The game really went back and forth in a lot of ways. It really came down to the last possession. “
Napier, the hero of the game who was crushed by teammates in a furious pileup near the locker room, is ready for a defensive effort.
“It was a dogfight, a tough game, and it came down to one last shot,” Napier said. “And I expect it to be the same, a dogfight. And Coach is going to get us prepared for this game and let’s get down there and do our thing.”
Doing their thing is what UConn and Florida have been doing since Dec. 2. It was one of the best games of the college regular season on Dec. 2
Let’s hope the rematch is just as good.