Wally Hall is the managing sports editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Arkansas-Little Rock after an honorable discharge from the U.S. Air Force, he is a past president and member of the Football Writers Association of America, member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, past president and current executive committee and board member of the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, and voter for the Heisman Trophy.
LIKE IT IS:
Florida’s loss proves first UConn game no fluke
The No. 1 overall seed, the Florida Gators, undefeated in SEC play, went down hard to No. 7 seed UConn Saturday in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament.
It was not an upset.
The Huskies were the better team, and the only question that remains is the seeding by the selection committee.
UConn’s victory was its second over a conference champion, having beat Villanova, and none of the teams they faced during March Madness finished worse than third in their league during the regular season.
The Huskies were fearless and overcame a very slow start, scoring only four points in the first 11 minutes, but overcoming a12-point deficit to make it the fourth-biggest comeback in NCAA Tournament history.
Everyone talks about survive and win, but to do so you have to play defense. UConn put on a clinic, holding the Gators to 19 field goals on 49 attempts. You also have to stick some jumpers, which the Huskies did, especially in the second half.
Florida opened the game looking like it was going to win without playing really well on offense - again - but after leading 16-4, the Gators suddenly had no answer for UConn’s defense, making only two of their next eight field-goal attempts before intermission, while the Huskies made eight of their final 13.
UConn took its first lead of the game with 3:18 to play until the half, taking the lead 21-20 after going on a 17-4 run that they stretched to 21-6 and a 25-22 halftime lead. They never trailed in the second half.
The Gators looked really ragged in the final nine minutes of the first half and almost all of the second half as the Huskies went around, over and through the Florida defense. The game may have been decided for the top seed when, down 25-22 with almost 37 seconds to play in the half, they couldn’t get off a shot and suffered a shot clock violation.
The pride of the SEC, regular season and conference tournament champions, the Gators struggled from the outside. The only three they hit was the first shot of the game with just 12 seconds gone. They missed their next nine, and most of that was because UConn challenged every shot and almost every dribble.
They also controlled the boards early, but the Huskies got more aggressive on both ends of the court, and by the time Kenny Anderson and Charles Barkley got on camera to explain what was happening, the Gators 30-game victory streak was in jeopardy. Their last loss this season was to UConn, but that was without freshman guard Kasey Hill, who had an ankle injury, and freshman forward Chris Walker, who had not been cleared by the NCAA. The Gators just didn’t have an answer for the Huskies’ intensity on defense.
Perhaps this loss, Florida’s second to UConn, won’t provide a much-needed claim to fame for the SEC, a league that has struggled in recent years other than in 2012 when Kentucky, who had the late game against Wisconsin, won the tournament.
With Kentucky and Florida making the Final Four and Tennessee getting to the Sweet 16, the SEC picked up eight NCAA Tournament units, which pay just more than $100,000 each to the conference for the next six years, so eight units could mean close to a million a year for several years to come.
Billy Donovan came into the game with a 35-11 record and national championships in 2006 and 2007, while UConn’s Kevin Ollie was making his first Final Four appearance, but the coaching was even Saturday.
The difference was on the court, and the best team won.
Sports, Pages 21 on 04/06/2014