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Huskies stun No. 1 Florida


ARLINGTON, Texas

This is the new normal. The way college basketball will look more often than not each March.

This is what the game has progressed — regressed? — to.

That a No. 1 overall seed, a team carrying a 30-game win streak into the Final Four, that last lost the week following Thanksgiving, could be so thoroughly dissected and conquered by a side seeded seventh in its NCAA Tournament region defines how achievable contending for the national championship has become.

For just the second time in eight years, the champion won’t be a No. 1 seed; for just the third time since the field expanded in 1985, a seed of 7 or lower will play for the title.

This is the new madness.

A prime example: The dismantling of Florida.

It was something to see Saturday night, perhaps not as exhilarating a show as those in garish AT&T Stadium and millions watching from home would have preferred, but memorable in its own tedious way.

I’m assuming this is what a morgue with an all-time Final Four gathering of 79,444 in it sounds like.

Slow, methodical deaths have a way of quieting even the most historic of masses.

Connecticut did this three years ago, creating late-season magic en route to winning a national title. But this was different. Even during their championship journey of 2011, the Huskies never took apart a tournament team with Florida’s resume.

They never sliced up an opponent that had put together the sort of run coach Billy Donovan’s team produced over the last four months.

But in its 63-53 victory that lifted Connecticut into Monday’s title game against Kentucky, the Huskies executed at both ends over the final 30 minutes in a way no one outside their locker room could have imagined.

They outscored Florida by 22 during that stretch.

They turned a game in which they once trailed 16-4 into a comfortable win.

“The clock is unwinding and you’re kind of sitting there and you kind of realize this is getting ready to come to an end,” Donovan said. “You’re trying to do all you can to help your guys as best you can because they fought to the end. We had a team that the whole was better than its parts. When you break us down individually, we’re not the most talented group. But when you stick us together, we’re really good.”

They weren’t really good Saturday.

Maybe such an upset is still based strictly on individual matchups.

Maybe it’s as easy as saying Connecticut went small and bigger, stronger, more physical Florida couldn’t handle it.

Maybe it wasn’t as big an upset as seeds have you believe.

Florida deserved its placement on the tournament’s top line in a season that lacked true greatness from any part of the country, but this was not a No. 1 without flaws.

On this night, Connecticut exposed each one.

Florida wasn’t a great offensive team all season, so when its point guard (Scottie Wilbekin) was again slowed by cramps Saturday, when he couldn’t penetrate past UConn’s backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, when he couldn’t live in the lane and make plays for himself and others as he did all season, the Gators were in major trouble.

Wilbekin couldn’t get off screens. Neither could Florida’s best 3-point shooter, Michael Frazier II. The Gators couldn’t handle Connecticut’s quickness. They had 11 turnovers to just three assists. They made one 3-pointer. It was their first shot attempt. They finished 1 of 10.

“We wanted to be relentless,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “Make them uncomfortable. Challenge every dribble, every pass. Make a team that always wants the ball in the middle of the court have to attack from the baseline.”

This is what happened between Florida’s last loss (to Connecticut on Dec. 2) and now: The Huskies became a good defensive team.

So what you had was a UConn side that has lost eight times this season, that fell to Louisville by 33 last month, that should have lost to St. Joseph’s before winning in overtime to open its NCAA run, clamping down on all the screening action at one end and making 56 percent of its shots at the other.

You had a Huskies side that was as bothered about Florida’s vaunted man-defense and 1-3-1 zone and the fact the Gators started four seniors as a Great Dane would be a Shih Tzu.

A seventh seed will play an eighth seed for the national championship.

This is the new normal, the new madness.

“One more,” Napier said. “It’s not over yet. One more. We believe in each other. We have faith in each other. We just have one more to go. We are totally different than the team in 2011. Different players, different coach. We want to do the same thing as them and win a championship, but we want to do it by creating our own path.”

They took a major step by dismantling the overall No. 1.

It was tedious, methodical, perhaps even boring in some eyes.

Yes. It was something to see.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.