College basketball’s biggest weekend is set and will determine the national champion as overall top-seeded Florida takes on Connecticut in one national semifinal, while Kentucky will meet Wisconsin in the other.
The Gators have been ranked No. 1 for much of the season and have now won 30 straight games. Florida’s last loss was a 65-64 decision on December 2 when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier sank a last-second jumper.
Connecticut’s strength rests in guards Napier and Ryan Boatright, and they won’t allow the Huskies (30-8) to wilt under the bright lights of the Final Four.
With Head Coach Billy Donovan pulling the strings, the Gators nabbed national titles in 2006 and 2007, and guard Scottie Wilbekin had a game-best 23 points with three assists, center Patric Young scored 12 points with six rebounds and guard Michael Frazier II added 10 points in a 62-52 blitz over No. 11 Dayton in the South Regional this past Saturday.
The Gators (36-2) pulled ahead, 38-24, at the break, shot 37.5 percent, but outrebounded the Flyers, 37-26.
It took the No. 2 Badgers (30-7) overtime to finally subdue No. 1 Arizona, 64-63, in the West Regional on Saturday at Honda Center behind center Frank Kaminsky’s game-high 28 points and team-best 11 rebounds.
Two classics were contested Sunday as the No. 7 Huskies sideswiped No. 4 Michigan State, 60-54, in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden as Napier tallied a game-best 25 points with four assists and Boatright had 11 points, while No. 8 Kentucky eased past No. 2 Michigan, 75-72, in the Midwest Regional when guard Aaron Harrison (12 points) flipped in a three-pointer with 2.3 seconds left.
The Wolverines were ahead for much of the opening half, but the Wildcats (28-10) made a surge that included a bucket from forward Julius Randle (16 points and 11 boards) that tied it 37-37 at the intermission.
The Spartans made six of 15 three-pointers in the first half, 11 of 29 overall, outscored the Huskies 23-9, had a 9-0 spurt at the end and led 25-21 at the half.
“I didn’t think we played our best game, but give credit to them,’’ said Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo. “We just had too many turnovers.”
Connecticut demonstrated a willingness to push the bigger and stronger Spartans away from the basket as Michigan State was held to six points in the paint with only six offensive rebounds.
“We made stops in the second half, four of them [in a row], and we turned them over [16 turnovers],’’ said Connecticut Head Coach Kevin Ollie, who played for Jim Calhoun, who guided the Huskies to three national crowns.
The Huskies fell behind, 33-23, when center Adreian Payne (13 points and nine boards) hit a three-pointer with 16:46 left in the second half, but Napier’s trey with 16:12 showing cut the lead to 33-26.
Napier was key in the second half as he made nine of nine from the free-throw line and added three hoops that included a pair from three-point range.
“He [Ollie] pushes us. It’s not just me,’’ said Napier of his affection for his coach. “Our fans are the best. We love playing at Madison Square Garden. It’s like our second home.”
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.