NEW YORK — Coming off Connecticut's most lopsided loss of its season, coach Kevin Ollie was looking for a spark earlier this month.
It was a down time, Ollie thought, and when your team is down, you get your players to bond as brothers. So he showed them tape from the Huskies' 65-64 win over Florida back on Dec. 2.
"I just wanted to show them, you know, Florida was No. 1 and we can beat No. 1," Ollie said then. "We have already proved it. I wanted to show them their intensity on the defensive end. The offensive end, we were sharing the ball."
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It worked. Connecticut won its next two games, fell again to Louisville in the conference tournament final, and won its next four games to reach a surprising Final Four.
That same Florida team awaits the Huskies in Dallas this weekend at the Final Four. Florida vs. Connecticut will be the first national semifinal, tipping off at 6:09 p.m. ET Saturday, followed by Wisconsin vs. Kentucky. Florida is the lone No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four.
"We're going to see what happens against them (again)," Ollie said Sunday. "I love Billy Donovan, what he does with his program, and he's just an amazing coach. And their team is amazing and it's going to take 40 full (minutes) again."
When he says a full 40 minutes, he means every last second. Connecticut won the Dec. 2 game on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater, and it is the last game Florida lost. The Gators were without their best perimeter defender, senior Scottie Wilbekin, for the game's final minutes due to an injury. This time around, the Wilbekin vs. Napier matchup — hopefully, 40 minutes of it — will be the most compelling individual matchup of the Final Four.
Florida, the top overall seed in the NCAA tournament, will likely be favored in each of its remaining games. The Gators do have a rather interesting path to the championship, however.
In order to win the title — which would be Donovan's third — they'll have to go through the last team to beat them (Connecticut), and either the only other team to beat them this season (Wisconsin) or a team they've beaten three times this season (Kentucky).
The Wildcats are the most surprising team in the group, a No. 8 seed from the Midwest Region that entered the postseason after a disappointing stretch that included losses to the likes of South Carolina and Arkansas.
But the Wildcats boast a collection of freshman talent that many analysts compare to that of Michigan's Fab Five, which meant a deep NCAA tournament run was never out of the question — if the individual talent turned into a team.
The kids grew up just in time, as Kentucky reeled off wins against Kansas State and three of last year's Final Four teams — Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan — to reach its second Final Four in three years. And, more importantly, this Kentucky team is living up to its wild expectations.
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"It's great," Kentucky sophomore Alex Poythress said. "That's what we came to do and what we wanted to do. Everybody has aspirations and dreams of coming to the Final Four, and now we are here. Now we are trying to get to the national title game."
The Wildcats' opponent, Wisconsin, reached the Final Four for the first time under coach Bo Ryan.
Seven-footer Frank Kaminsky was the main reason why, as the big man scored 28 points against Arizona. He's a threat along the perimeter as well as in the paint, which should create a fascinating matchup when he goes up against Kentucky's big, bruising frontcourt.
"We're going in a little bit blind," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "But I'm going to tell you, we've got good skill. We've got good size. We've got good toughness. We've got tougher through football practices.
"Now they're playing a little bit different. We're able to make tougher shots when we're getting bumped and grabbed a little bit."
Contributing: Nancy Armour
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