STORRS, Conn. -- The Florida-Connecticut game tonight will represent an attractive cross-regional matchup for ESPN, not to mention what figures to be some nice RIP points for both teams down the line.
A rare matchup, too.
The Gators and Huskies have played just once before and longtime UF basketball followers surely remember; just as longtime UConn fans -- not to mention a certain first-team All-American named Donyell Marshall -- surely would like to forget.
Take Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, who wore a Huskies uniform that game, for example.
“They played well, they had the crowd behind them and got the momentum,” Ollie told UConn reporters this week. “We thought Donyell would make one of those free throws. He didn’t and they took it to us. It happens.”
Rewind to March 25, 1994.
[Note: I was in Miami that night as UF’s beat writer for The Tampa Tribune in what, without question, was one of my all-time writing deadline nightmares, given the tip-off time (10:05 p.m., if memory serves), circumstances (overtime) and historical significance (Florida basketball like never before).]
The Gators and Huskies met in the NCAA East Region semifinals at Miami Arena. UF, the region’s No. 3 seed and ranked 14th in the country, was in the Sweet 16 for only the second time in school history. UConn was not only the No. 2 seed and conference regular-season champ, but the nation’s third-ranked team and armed with Marshall, the 6-foot-9 forward and Big East Player of the Year, who came in averaging 25.4 points per game.
UF shot just 37 percent for the game and trailed by 10 in the second half when UConn went uncharacteristically cold -- 10 minutes without a field goal.
Meanwhile, the Gators, behind the backcourt of Craig Brown and Dan Cross chipped away at the Huskies’ lead and tied the game at 57-all on a pair of pressure-packed free throws from Cross with 31 seconds remaining.
Florida followed with what seemed to be a great defensive possession until forward Andrew DeClercq fouled Marshall underneath with three seconds remaining.
Marshall, a 76-percent shooter from the line for his career, stepped to the line and promptly bounced the first off the rim. UF coach Lon Kruger called a timeout after that fist attempt to give the Huskies star a little more time to think about the second.
He missed that one, too.
The Gators ran UConn out of the building in overtime, winning 69-60 to advance to the first Elite Eight in program history, and eventually to the Final Four after defeating Boston College for the regional title.
For Florida to accomplish such a feat in its home state was a big deal. Really big. Conversely, you can imagine the blowback in New England directed at Marshall, who finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots, but went scoreless the final 12:25 of the game and had the two ill-timed boinks.
"If there is one thing that is unfortunate about this game, it is that Donyell Marshall had to go through something like that at the end, but we obviously benefited from that,” Kruger said after the game. “This is a big-time win and it is very important to us."
Marshall’s coach defended his standout.
"Donyell Marshall is a large, large percentage of why we're here playing in the Sweet 16," Calhoun said. "Donyell Marshall is a large reason we won 21 basketball games. Donyell Marshall is a giant, giant reason why we won the Big East by three basketball games. Donyell Marshall has made a lot of shots for us, and before it's over, he'll make a lot more."
Actually, he made no more shots for UConn. Marshall entered the 1994 NBA Draft and was the fourth overall choice by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He went on to play 15 seasons and still holds the NBA single-game record (along with Kobe Bryant) for 3-pointers in one game with 12.