UConn spurred to title game by Daniels, doubt - NBC Sports

UConn spurred to title game by Daniels, doubt
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April 6, 2014, 2:00 am

ARLINGTON, Tex. – Let’s take a look at the power of one shot. Eleven minutes into Saturday’s national semifinal game, Florida led Connecticut 16-4 and the game seemed more or less over. The Huskies had FOUR POINTS. They were on pace to score 15 for the game. In that moment, it was all but impossible to imagine Connecticut scoring enough points to actually win.

One thing that is hard to capture about a big game like a Final Four or the Super Bowl or an Olympic final is the overwhelming strain, agitation and excitement that hovers in the air like fog. Every mistake can feel decisive. Every lead can feel insurmountable. The clock seems to be spinning impossibly fast, like the numbers on a gas pump. Or it can stand still, like the clock at school in May. Big games, in any sport, magnify the moment and can make the moment feel too big.

The moment could not have not looked more undeniable or daunting than when Florida led 16-4 Saturday night. The Gators defense, which had deactivated offense after offense in the Gators’ brilliant 30-game winning streak, suffocated Connecticut’s players, stole the air from them and made them jump from shadows. The Huskies could barely get the ball across half court in time. They kept dribbling into double teams. They stumbled through their offense as if the ground was moving under their feet.

And maybe that is how it felt. Four points.

First possession: Turnover. Second: Off-balance three-pointer. Third: Off-balance shot. And so it went. Turnover. Bad shot. Missed three. Missed shot. Turnover. About eight minutes into the game, Florida’s Patrick Young blocked a shot so hard the ball asked for a restraining order. At that point everybody around the massive AT&T Stadium seemed to understand just how this would end.

Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie called timeout and gathered around his team. He would say that on his board he wrote down the three words that had been their mantra through their unexpected run:  “Even now faith.” To Ollie, this is what it all comes down to in sports and in life, in adversity and in pain, in the truly dark moments and, yes, also in a big basketball game that is getting away: Even now faith.

“We sat down after coach called the timeout,” Connecticut’s star and leader Shabazz Napier said. “And he just said, ‘Guys we have been in this position before. Believe in each other.”

The Huskies went into their offense. Screens were set, players set in motion. The ball was passed around to DeAndre Daniels, who stood behind the three-point line, and he had a little air to breathe, a little space to shoot. He rose, he shot, and he would say he knew. A shooter knows. The ball swished through the net. The Connecticut fans in the masses made the biggest sound they could.

“When he knocked down that three,” Napier said, “our fans went crazy, and then we understood what was going to happen next.”

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Underdog teams like to talk about how people doubt them, but to be fair about it, this Huskies team for most of the year played as if it wanted to be doubted. They did beat Florida early in the year on a last-second shot and that turned out to be Florida’s last loss until the game on Saturday. But that wasn’t really in character with the season. The Huskies lost twice to SMU, once to Houston, and was outclassed by double digits all three times they played Louisville. At Louisville in early March, they lost by 33.

“The bigger the problem,” Ollie says, “the bigger the destiny.”

Well, you know, maybe …

“We feel like we’ve been doubted the whole season,” Daniels would say. “It was definitely like that heading into the tournament when people didn’t have us winning our first game.”

Well, heck, the Huskies almost lost their first game when St. Joseph’s led them by three in the final minute of the game. Connecticut found a way to push the game into overtime and then Napier took over, but it certainly wasn’t easy and Connecticut needed some luck. All that certainly wouldn’t inspire a logical person to stop doubting Connecticut.

What happened next did not show that the doubters were wrong, but instead showed that, after so much effort, Connecticut finally found its voice. The big reason for that was a 6-foot-9 junior from Los Angeles named DeAndre Daniels. For a long time, people had expected glorious things from him. He was one of those super recruits, the kind who the scouts say can make a good team great. Only it wasn’t like that for him. Coaches found him to be a nice kid, and they didn’t always mean that in the best way. He would not just take the game over. He would not just impose his will. He seemed too content in the back of the team photograph.

Sure, there were times when his talent left everyone gasping. He’s 6-foot-9, can soar, can make three-pointers and has a lightning quick first step. But he hardly played as a freshman and tended to drift into the background as a sophomore. Even this year, he disappeared for games at a time. Coming into March, he was averaging barely 12 points a game. In the six games from February 15 through March 4, he failed to score double figures in five of them, and he had three times as many turnovers as three-point field goals.

But then, it clicked. Talent. Confidence. All of it. He was actually the only positive presence in Louisville’s destruction of the Huskies in early March. He scored 17 points and grabbed 10 rebounds against Louisville in American Athletic Conference final. He scored 18 against St. Joseph’s to kick off the tournament. He took over the game against Iowa State, scoring 27 with 10 rebounds and two blocks.

And Saturday night, with Florida in control, with the game on the brink, he hit the shot that changed everything. Thirty seconds after he made his three-pointer, teammate Ryan Boatright made one of his own. Connecticut’s Terrence Samuel came into the game and scored on a driving layup. “Coach Ollie told me when I went in: ‘Be the game changer I want you to be,” said Samuel.

And then, that man Daniels made another three, another swish so pure that you could almost hear the buzzing of ball spinning in the net. The score went from 16-4 to 16-15 in a matter of 90 seconds. Because of the charged atmosphere of the game, it felt even faster.

And Florida, so confident just seconds earlier, suddenly looked lost. The Gators’ great guard Scottie Wilbekin could not get away from the quick defensive hands of Napier and Boatright. Florida’s great shooter Michael Frazier II, who had made a three pointer to lead off the game, could not get a look at the basket.

Then Daniels just took over. A defensive rebound here, a good pass there, an offensive rebound and stick back. He slipped behind the defense on an alley-oop. He made a steal. Early in the second half, with Connecticut beginning to open its lead, he grabbed a rebound and then, even with defenders in front, decided to go up and slam the ball through anyway. It was a ferocious dunk that gave Connecticut an eight-point lead, as he pointed to the Huskies fans.

They never trailed and never really came close to trailing after that. The Huskies ended up shooting 55% from the field, and they won by 10. In all, Daniels scored 20, pulled down 10 boards, and he proved to be the force Florida could not deal with.

But, really, I wonder how much that one shot meant when the game was 16-4. Shabazz would say that before the shot, there was a lot of doubt twisting in the air, and after it, the Connecticut players all knew they were going to win. Of course, that’s just stuff going on in the players’ minds. But in a big game, isn’t that stuff in their minds exactly what matters?

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski



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