ARLINGTON, Texas -- The march to a national championship three years ago taught Niels Giffey a valuable lesson -- when all else fails, just keeping play defense.
"That's one of those things this program is all about, I realized that my freshman year already when it comes to these tournaments," the UConn senior forward said. "You can run your plays, you can scout the opponent, but what it really comes down to is toughness on defense.
"When you have to lock down their best guy, and it's not really about watching that tape so many times before, but it's about the hustle of the game. The intensity, and that's something you can bring every day."
The Huskies (30-8) must bring it against top-seed Florida (36-2) when they meet at 6:09 Saturday night in the national semifinals in front of 77,000-plus fans at AT&T Stadium.
"That's why we're here because of our defense," UConn junior DeAndre Daniels said.
Last Sunday when Giffey's outside game was off its mark against Michigan State, he didn't let it impact play at the other end in trying to help contain Spartan star Adreian Payne.
"My shot wasn't falling, but I could still influence the game in other ways," Giffey said. "So that's just a way we always find our way into a game, through defense, through toughness."
UConn coach Kevin Ollie has preached that message all season with mixed reviews, but the Huskies are buying into it now. Despite giving up more points in the NCAA tournament (69 per game) than the regular season (63.7), the effort has been there, especially in crunch time.
"Before the tournament started we started to (buying into playing tough defense), I don't really know, I can't explain it," UConn sophomore center Phil Nolan said. "I just feel like we are definitely buying into it now."
Guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier have been the defensive anchors (a combined 15 steals in the NCAAs), but the Husky big men have elevated their games against players like Payne and Iowa State's Melvin Ejim. The Big 12 Player of the Year, Ejim, fouled out with seven points in the Sweet 16 and was a non-factor for the Cyclones.
"We understand we have to be mentally there on the defensive end," Napier said. "Shots may not fall for us offensively, but like I always said, if we hang our hat on the defensive end, then we have something to fall back on.
"We understand we have to be more in depth understanding who we are guarding and we have to stick together, communicate. Lately we have been communicating much better and I think that's one of the main reasons our defense has gotten much better."
The communication has worked well in dealing with inside players like Payne, who scored 13 points in the Elite Eight, but nine came on 3-point shots with Nolan draped all over him. MSU managed just six points in the paint and six offensive rebounds. UConn will need it to work again against Florida's inside beast Patric Young and Will Yeguete. Read Full Article
"We understand the whole defensive concepts we are trying to emphasize a little more," Giffey said. At this point in the season, we don't have to talk about the little things anymore because it's just clicking.
"In the beginning you have the freshman and that maybe they didn't understand the whole team concept, but now you already know what the third rotation is going to be on defense. Take for example with Adriean Payne. At times we had one guy in front of him, fronting the post, we had one guy behind him and one guy already helping the guy who was helping. So, there are so many people involved. It's just about having the other guy's back and it's really clicking right now."