Arlington, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Two teams familiar with long runs in the NCAA Tournament face off in the Final Four on Saturday, as the Connecticut Huskies do battle with the Florida Gators at AT&T Stadium, for the right to play in the national championship game on Monday against either Kentucky or Wisconsin.
Kevin Ollie's Huskies made a surprising run to the Final Four. UConn opened tournament play as the seventh-seed in the East Region and barely survived a second-round clash with Saint Joseph's (89-81 OT). The run continued with a third-round upset of second-seeded Villanova (77-65), followed by a Sweet 16 victory over Iowa State (81-76), before taking the East Regional crown with a 60-54 upset of Michigan State to advance to Arlington.
The Huskies have had plenty of postseason success, claiming national championships in 1999, 2004 and 2011. The team is 56-29 all-time in this event, spanning 31 appearances. This marks the fifth Final Four appearance for UConn and its third in the last six seasons, first under Ollie.
Billy Donovan's Gators are right where everyone expected them to be. The top overall seed in this event and the No. 1 ranked team in the country entering the postseason, Florida sports a program-record 30-game win streak, after disposing of Albany (67-55), Pittsburgh (61-45), UCLA (79-68) and finally Cinderella squad Dayton (62-52) to capture the South Region.
The Gators also own a solid postseason resume, with national championships in back-to-back seasons (2006-07) and a 42-16 NCAA Tournament record overall. UF is making its fifth Final Four appearance and fourth under Donovan, first since 2007.
These two teams have already met once this season, as UConn was the last team to beat the Gators, recording a 65-64 decision in Storrs back on Dec. 2. The only other meeting took place in the 1994 NCAA Tournament, with Florida posting a 69-60 victory in the Sweet 16.
The Huskies trailed Michigan State by four points at the half (25-21), but All-American Shabazz Napier scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half to will his team to victory. Napier led all scorers with his output, going 6- of-14 from the floor and a perfect 9-of-9 from the free-throw line. DeAndre Daniels added 12 points and eight rebounds to the mix, while Ryan Boatright chimed in with 11 points in the win.
Ollie had nothing but praise for his team after upsetting the Spartans.
"We're going to be well prepared, because I know about these guys' heart," Ollie said. "That's what got us through: It was a heart of a champion, heart of a lion."
It certainly helps to have a savvy veteran like Napier running the show. No one has played better in the postseason than Napier, turning it up a notch in this event and averaging over 23 points per game in earning East Regional Most Valuable Player. The Huskies' floor general has been the embodiment of a team- player in 2013-14, showing the kind of versatility rarely seen at the collegiate level. The 6-foot-1 senior has started every game this year and leads the team in scoring (18.1 ppg), rebounding (5.9 rpg), assists (4.9 apg) and steals (66). With that kind of production, the accolades have come pouring in, including being named the AAC Player of the Year, as well as earning a spot on the All-America First-Team.
Despite Napier's numbers that would seem to prove otherwise, UConn is far from a one-man show, as players like Daniels (13.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Boatright (12.0 ppg, 4 apg) have made sizable contributions as well.
The Gators are defined by their stellar defensive play, as they come into the Final Four yielding a mere 57.6 ppg (third nationally), holding foes under 40 percent shooting overall (.399). They have actually bettered those marks in the tournament, with the last four opponents averaging just 55.0 ppg on .397 shooting. A truly remarkable campaign in Gainesville, Florida became the first team to run the table in the SEC, finishing a perfect 18-0 in league play.
Balance has been crucial to Florida's sustained success, as four of the five starters average double figures in scoring. While he doesn't pace the team in that category, senior Scottie Wilbekin (13.4 ppg, 3.7 apg) was named the SEC Player of the Year and a Third-Team All-American. He is joined in the backcourt by sharpshooter Michael Frazier (12.6 ppg, 117 3-pointers). Frontcourt depth comes in the form of Casey Prather (13.8 ppg), Patric Young (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and Dorian Finney-Smith (8.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg). Prather and Wilbekin were both All-SEC First-Team members, while the rugged Young was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Wilbekin was at his best in Memphis last week, as he didn't commit a single turnover in the two games played there. Against Dayton in the regional final, Florida's leader tied a career-high with 23 points. The Gators used a 19-3 run in the first half to open things up and the Flyers were unable to successfully climb out of that hole and back into contention in the second half. Young was once again strong down low, adding 12 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots to the mix, while Frazier tacked on 10 points of his own in the win.
Florida's consistency has been achieved thanks to big game experience according to Donovan.
"I think our non conference schedule helped us get prepared. I don't think there is any question. I think going on the road to UCONN, going on the road to Wisconsin, playing Memphis, playing Florida State, playing Kansas, we've played some neutral sites. We've played road games. We've played home games. I don't think there is any question our non conference schedule helped prepare us for the league. I think our league helped prepare us for postseason."