ARLINGTON, Texas – Connecticut will not ride a one-man gang into the national championship game this time.
Shabazz Napier is still the leader, but DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright have taken their turns at the wheel.
Daniels carried UConn out of an early funk to finish with 20 points and 10 rebounds, and Boatright gave the Huskies a lift at both ends in a 63-53 victory against Florida in the Final Four on Saturday night
Napier was quiet early but still finished with a steady game – 12 points and six assists. But it was Daniels and Boatright who proved to be the difference-makers for the seventh-seeded Huskies (31-8), earning them a spot in Monday’s championship game.
Daniels helped UConn dig out of a big early hole by scoring inside and out and hit a couple of big shots down the stretch to prevent Florida (36-3) from rallying. He made nine of 14 shots against the Gators, the top overall seed who had won 30 straight until Saturday.
Comfortable in his role as Napier’s sidekick, Boatright consistently drove inside Florida’s defense and combining with Napier to hold ailing Gators star Scottie Wilbekin (cramps) to four points and one assist.
The Huskies had been down this road before: A scrappy, unheralded team making a deep NCAA Tournament run behind a do-it-all guard.
In 2011, it was Kemba Walker darting and dashing his way through the bracket while leading UConn to its third national title – all under Jim Calhoun.
Napier was a freshman on that team and learned from his mentor, becoming the carry-the-team player in Storrs many times this season.
But he hasn’t done it alone.
Boatright has been interchangeable with Napier in the backcourt, playing shooting guard when Napier runs the point, leading the team when Napier shifts to the two spot or heads to the bench.
He also turned into UConn’s point-guard stopper, hounding the opposing team’s floor leader into mistakes and generally making life much harder all around.
Daniels was sort of an enigma at times during the regular season for the Huskies, showing off flashes of his athleticism some games, disappearing in others. Daniels has been steady during the NCAA Tournament, though, including a 27-point, 10-rebound game in the Sweet 16 against Iowa State.
Napier did most of the work in an early-season win against Florida, hitting a game-winning jumper at the buzzer while scoring 26 points in a one-point victory – the Gators’ last loss before stringing together a 30-game win streak into the Final Four.
The Huskies fell into holes of 7-0 and 16-4 as the Gators contained Napier, for the most part.
Daniels helped UConn shake its funk, hitting a pair of three-pointers and sailing in for a dunk during an 11-0 run that pulled the Huskies back in it.
When it was finished, the Huskies again were underdogs headed to the national championship – this time with a pair of sidekicks helping the star make it there.