Eyes were red and watered. Voices cracked. Lips quivered. For the second NCAA Tournament in a row, the Gators couldn’t avoid a Texas tornado.
Deep in the bowels of AT&T Stadium, Florida players, especially freshman point guard Kasey Hill, could barely process the moment.
The Gators, losers for the first time in four months, lost 63-53 to seventh-seeded Connecticut in the Final Four, ending a dream season.
The pregame narrative centered around Florida’s suffocating, vicious defense, but it was UConn that stymied the Gators, playing “a perfect game,” according to UF assistant Matt McCall.
“It’s interesting. If [we’d] won the next two games people probably would’ve talked about this team as one of the best team in basketball history, but we just ran into a bad night,” McCall said. “It’s unfortunate. Could’ve happened against any team in the tournament, but it just so happened it happened [Saturday night].”
The Gators lost a buzzer-beater to the Huskies on Dec. 2, but a then-shorthanded group vowed revenge. Hill and Chris Walker played. Scottie Wilbkin finished the game, but Florida delivered its worst offensive performance on the worst possible night.
The Gators shot a lowly 6 of 25 from behind the three-point line during the regional in Arlington last season, and Florida continued its woeful shooting in the cavernous AT&T Stadium on Saturday night.
Sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II made a three-pointer for UF’s first points of the game, but the Gators never made another basket from behind the arc (1 of 10).
Florida’s offense, stagnant and inept for large stretches, tallied a bevy of season lows, including 22 first-half points, three assists and just the single three-pointer.
Florida shot 38.8 percent from the field, its second-worst shooting performance on the year.
During one disastrous stretch, Casey Prather — UF’s senior forward who chipped in 15 points — was Florida’s only player to score a field goal for nearly 18 minutes.
“We just couldn’t execute, simple as that,” a despondent Prather said. “Credit them, they did what they’re supposed to do, and they played outstanding defense.”
All-American point guard Shabazz Napier was billed as the best remaining player in the tournament, but it was his teammate DeAndre Daniels who proved to the be matchup nightmare.
UConn’s forward scored a game-high 20 points and had 10 rebounds, as Florida’s usually stifling defense was no match for the junior’s versatility. Daniels scored on lobs, layups and three-pointers.
UF forward Dorian Finney-Smith said the junior caused problems in cross-matchups and found holes in the team’s 1-3-1 zone.
THIS AND THAT• Gators senior center Patric Young scored a season-high 19 points in the final game of his career.
• Florida sold out its entire allotment of 3,250 tickets.
• UF became the fourth team since 1978-79 to enter the Final Four with a winning streak of 30-plus games and not win a national title.
• Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard and ex-Gators forward Chandler Parsons, a former SEC Player of the Year, were in attendance. Both players spent much of the second half rooting for Florida in the school’s Rowdy Reptiles student section.
• UConn guards Napier and Ryan Boatright combined for 25 points, nine assists and six steals.