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UF gearing for UConn guard Napier

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Posted: Wednesday, April 2, 2014 11:33 pm

Shabazz Napier has more All-Conference First-Team selections than Scottie Wilbekin. He has more career points than Patric Young and Will Yeguete combined. He had more minutes on the court in just his freshman year than Casey Prather had in nearly three years of action.

But most importantly, UConn’s senior point guard has more national championship rings than any player on Florida’s roster.

Unfortunately for coach Billy Donovan and the No. 1-seed Gators, Napier is having one of the best postseasons of his four-year career.

“He has evolved into an elite guard in this country, as good as anybody out there,” Donovan said. “Certainly against us he made some really big shots coming down the stretch.”

In that Dec. 2 matchup in Storrs, Conn., no shot was bigger — or more painful for Gators fans — than Napier’s buzzer-beater that handed Florida its second and most recent loss of the season.

That shot was Napier’s first and last career buzzer-beater, as well as inspiration for the Gators in at least one late-game scenario during the Southeastern Conference Championship against Kentucky.

Since dropping 26 points against Florida, Napier has averaged 18.5 points per contest.

In his four tournament games so far, the 6-foot-1 point guard has stepped up his scoring game even more by averaging 23.3 points per contest, which is the most out of any player on any of the Final Four teams.

In UConn’s Elite Eight matchup with Michigan State on Sunday, the first-team All-American led all scorers with 25 points, 17 of which came in the second half.

And when the Spartans jumped out to a nine-point advantage with 16:34 on the clock, Napier scored seven of the Huskies’ next nine points to knot the game at 32 just more than four minutes later.

Because Napier has been a thorn in the side of every defense he has faced so far in the NCAA Tournament, Donovan said he can’t expect Wilbekin — a member of the SEC All-Defensive Team — to guard his counterpart all by himself.

“I’ve always believed that Scottie Wilbekin is a great defender and Napier is a great offensive player,” the 18-year coach said during Monday’s Final Four teleconference.

“I always believe that great offense beats great defense. So this is not necessarily going to be a situation where Scottie is going to be playing Napier by himself. We’ve been a team, a defensive team, and we’ve got to try to do as good of a job as we can collectively helping Scottie in whatever situation he may be in during the game.”

During Florida’s previous contest against UConn, Wilbekin was forced to leave the game with 3:01 remaining after spraining his right ankle. While the Gators’ top backcourt defender was stuck in the locker room, Napier knocked down a three-point shot to tie the game, a free throw to put his squad up one and the mid-range jumper to win the contest.

Now fully healthy, Wilbekin said he expects Napier and the rest of the Huskies shooters to have their best game of the season.

However, he added he has faith in himself and his teammates to shut down UConn’s shooters enough to pull out a victory and advance to Florida’s first national championship game since 2007.

“The last time we played them, it was a good game,” Wilbekin said. “I think both teams played well. Close game the whole time. I think it’s a good matchup. I think it’s a game we can win. It’s not going to be easy, it will be tough. It’s going to be tough to match up with them and all their shooters, but I think we have a good chance.”

Follow Jonathan Czupryn on Twitter @jczupryn

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