Latest Florida-UConn chapter stirs up echoes of 1994

Connecticut's Donyell Marshall gets past Florida's Andrew DeClercq during the NCAA East Regionals in Miami in March of 1994. Marshall missed two free throws that could have won the game with 3.4 seconds left. Florida went on to win in overtime. (AP photo/Hans Deryk)

Published: Saturday, April 5, 2014 at 12:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 4, 2014 at 10:22 p.m.

Florida's rematch with Connecticut has Gator fans thinking back to Dec. 2 when Shabazz Napier hit a shot at the buzzer to hand Florida its second loss of the season. Little did we know they would win the next 30 games and be headed to the Final Four.

But for older Gators, it also brings back the memory of Florida's improbable run to the Final Four, its first, in 1994.

That was the team that had a motto of “Find A Way.” Just getting to the tournament was the goal, but the Gators found themselves in Miami for a Sweet 16 game against UConn, which was a heavy favorite.

Often, to get to the Final Four, a team needs a break. Florida's came courtesy of Donyell Marshall, the star of the Huskies team.

I'm sure many of you remember what happened, but indulge me.

With 3.4 seconds left in the game and the score tied, Marshall was fouled. He had already made 5-of-6 free throws in the game, so it looked like the Gators' run was coming to an end.

Not so fast, my friend.

Marshall missed the first free throw and Florida called timeout.

“I remember being nervous, anxious,” said Dan Cross, the rugged point guard on that '94 team. “I was thinking our season might be over. No way one of the best players in the country could miss two free throws.”

But he did.

Andrew DeClercq snatched the rebound and Florida called another timeout. After the inbounds pass was tipped away, Florida got the ball to Dametri Hill, their massive center, for a desperation shot. It missed, but Florida outscored UConn 12-3 in overtime to advance to the Elite Eight.

“I've made shots before,” Marshall told reporters after the game. “I felt very confident. The second one just hit the back rim and rolled out. There's nothing you can do about that.”

The Marshall misses are a major part of the lore of Florida basketball. Ask any fan who was around then about the 1994 season and those free throws will be a part of the story anyone tells.

“I didn't feel sorry for him whatsoever,” Cross said, “and to this day I don't feel sorry for him.”

Cross was in attendance in Orlando when Florida started this NCAA journey, rooting for the Gators from a third-row seat in the Amway Center.

And he sees some similarities between this team and that one, in part because they had a pair of in-state NCAA games.

“It was a massive home-court advantage,” he said. “We got a break, but we had to take advantage of the opportunity. It was right there.

“But I also see the similarity that when the stars align, you have to play good basketball at the right time.”

Florida went on to beat Boston College to go to Charlotte, where the Gators lost a tough one to Duke. For years, it was the biggest bright spot in a program that had pockets of success but struggled to sustain momentum.

Prior to that 1994 team, Florida had only played in six NCAA tournament games, losing three of them. And after the '94 season, Florida was eliminated in the first round a year later.

A year after that, Florida went 12-16. Coach Lon Kruger was tired of the football-school mentality and bolted for Illinois. Jeremy Foley hired a young coach named Billy Donovan.

Now, we take NCAA tournaments as a regular part of the season. Donovan has placed 14 of his 18 teams in the tournament, has won two national titles and is in the Final Four for a fourth time.

But there is still a special place in the hearts of Gator fans who were almost disbelieving that they finally had a team on college basketball's biggest stage in 1994.

Sometimes, you need a break. Or a couple of bricks.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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