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Men's Basketball: UConn, Florida square off in Final Four

By Tim Fontenault
On April 3, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas - Four weeks ago, as UConn walked off the court at the KFC Yum! Center, it did not seem likely that the Huskies would be playing Florida Saturday night in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium.

Not even a month has passed since the Huskies' regular season ended with an 81-48 loss at Louisville. UConn missed 36 of its 51 shots that day. They shot 3 of 22 from the 3-point line. Everything looked off at the worst possible time.

But when the Huskies sat down to watch film after that game, they got a surprise. Ollie decided to show them clips from the Huskies' most recent encounter with Florida, a 65-64 win at Gampel Pavilion on Dec. 2, a win capped by a buzzer beater from Shabazz Napier.

"I think everybody was looking at the 33-point loss as a problem," Ollie said. "We were looking at it as a possibility for us to get better as a team. I think that's the kind of mindset that we have to overcome different distractions that we have been having, not the Louisville game, for two years now.

"Being banned, not being able to go to the postseason last year. They always had the next play mentality. I think it's great for a team to always have that mindset that can you get better from any distraction and it's not going to stop you from your destiny as a team."

That loss did anything but stop UConn, who then reached the AAC final before going on a run that has seen the Huskies overcome one adverse situation after another to get within two wins of a fourth national championship, thanks to what Ollie calls playing at "level five."

"It's a championship mentality," Ollie said. "It's playing together, playing unselfish, playing as five and not just one. Because sometimes you get to this stage and you want to play as one and you want to go off and be individual, but that's not going to work."

The spotlight all season has been on Shabazz Napier, an AP First Team All-American, the East Region Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament and the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. Napier is averaging 23.3 points per game while shooting 45 percent during the NCAA tournament, becoming UConn's fourth-leading scorer all time along the way, but Napier did not get UConn to Texas on his own.

DeAndre Daniels has taken his game to another level this postseason, after averaging 14.7 points per game in the AAC tournament, Daniels has upped his output to 17 points per game while shooting 50 percent in the NCAA tournament, and he is tied with Niels Giffey for the team lead with 6.8 rebounds per game.

Against Florida in December, Daniels, who was recruited by the Gators out of high school, scored 14 points on 6 of 10 shooting, and his seventh rebound was the tip back to Napier for the game-winning shot as time expired.

"He's really become extremely versatile," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He posts up, he shoots threes, he's putting it on the floor, he can start the break, he passes, he rebounds, he's playing really hard for their team. I think watching UConn now and getting prepared for them in December, there's no question he's really continued to progress and grow."

Napier, Giffey and Tyler Olander have been here before; they won the national championship in 2011. Between Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin, only Kentucky's John Hood and Jarrod Polson have been to the Final Four, and they sat on the bench the entire time during the Wildcats' semifinal loss to the Huskies in 2011.

So with that advantage of experience, Giffey has done his best to help his younger teammates prepare for the experience, which includes playing in front of potentially 75,000 fans and a chance at bringing UConn its fourth national title.

"You can't be too impressed with everything that's going on, the gym, the different crowd that's going to be out there and all the attention that's focused on you," Giffey said. "So just stay with your group as much as you can, stay with your teammates. That's really what I'm trying to tell my younger guys that haven't been here before, just try to have fun. Enjoy this moment as much as you can."

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