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Friday, January 28, 2022
<p>Scottie Wilbekin calls out a play during Florida’s 62-52 win against Dayton on Saturday in FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn. Wilbekin was in the locker room with a high ankle sprain when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier hit his buzzer-beater shot to top Florida 65-64 on Dec. 2.</p>

Scottie Wilbekin calls out a play during Florida’s 62-52 win against Dayton on Saturday in FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn. Wilbekin was in the locker room with a high ankle sprain when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier hit his buzzer-beater shot to top Florida 65-64 on Dec. 2.

UConn point guard Shabazz Napier was on a mission.

With 17.7 seconds left on the clock and Connecticut trailing Florida by only one point, the Huskies needed their senior leader and top scorer to pull one more miracle out of his pocket. On the previous offensive possession, Napier notched a four-point play to put his team back into contention.

While the Gampel Pavilion crowd stood in suspense and bit its nails, he dribbled down the court and studied his options.

About 10 seconds dwindled. Then, what Florida coach Billy Donovan calls to this day a “freak play” ensued.

Huskies forward DeAndre Daniels ran up to the elbow to set a pick on forward Casey Prather as Napier dribbled to his right, but center Patric Young helped on the pick-and-roll. The two Gators soon trapped Napier and caught the point guard in a bind.

But Napier, aware and agile, successfully split the double team, losing his handle but quickly regaining it. Pressed for time, he then forced an off-balance jumper at the elbow with about three seconds remaining.

Way off.

Before Napier’s field-goal attempt clanked off the bottom-left region of the glass, all five Florida defenders rushed to the rim for the board.

“When a shot goes up, the tendency is to want to go in there and want to go rebound,” Donovan said. “We obviously ran in way too deep.”

It proved to be a fatal mistake.

Before any Gator could jump, Daniels back-tapped the ball to an open Napier at the foul line.

“You’ve got to give him credit that he had the wherewithal just to keep the ball alive,” Donovan said. “I don’t know if he knew where he was tipping it to.”

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As a late Prather frantically rushed to stick a hand in Napier’s face, the UConn guard was gifted one more opportunity. With victory on his mind and 0.4 seconds left on the clock, Napier pulled the trigger from about 15 feet out.

Bang.

■ ■ ■

For Florida, Dec. 2 seems like light years ago.

Since falling 65-64 to Napier’s buzzer-beater on that chaotic night in Storrs, Conn., the Gators have won 30 consecutive games — good for a program record and the longest streak in the nation. During that span, Florida achieved a perfect 18-0 Southeastern Conference regular-season record, won its conference tournament and reached its first Final Four since 2007. Aside from a sluggish start against Albany, UF has been a force to be reckoned with in the Big Dance, winning all of its tournament games by double-digit margins.

In the grand scheme of things, the UConn loss seemed like an afterthought — until Sunday.

When Connecticut knocked off Michigan State 60-54 in the Elite Eight, it all came full circle. Saturday at 6:09 p.m. in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, No. 1 overall seed Florida (36-2) will square off against seventh-seeded UConn (30-8) in the Final Four for a spot in Monday night’s national title game.

Following its buzzer-beating win against UF, UConn had its rough patches. Second-year Huskies coach Kevin Ollie saw his group lose eight games — six by 10 points or fewer — and fall outside of the AP poll by week 11 of the season.

But after an embarrassing 81-48 loss at Louisville on March 8, Connecticut turned the ship around and has won six of its past seven games.

Behind Napier’s leadership, the Huskies cruised through a difficult bracket in the East Regional, defeating 10-seed Saint Joseph’s in overtime 89-81, 2-seed Villanova 77-65, 3-seed Iowa State 81-76 and then the Spartans for perhaps their most impressive postseason victory.

“I would probably say like ourselves, playing them back in December, they’re a much, much better team today than when we played them,” Donovan said.

As different as both squads’ journeys to the Final Four have been, both are still tied to that fateful buzzer-beater on Dec. 2 and think back to it often.

“We took a lot from that game,” Ollie said. “The resiliency that we had, we got down in that game and came back. We played hard. We played scrappy.”

Added Donovan: “It was a game that really helped our team going forward.”

■ ■ ■

It’s the SEC Tournament title game. Kentucky coach John Calipari calls a timeout as his team has the ball and trails Florida 61-60 with 14 seconds remaining. The Wildcats have one more chance to draw up a play and make something happen.

But the Gators knew they had to remain disciplined and stay with their man on defense instead of all going for the rebound like they did in the first UConn matchup which resulted in Napier’s game-winner.

“We just said, ‘Everybody box your man out, so they don’t hurt us on the second shot,’” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.

On March 16, the Gators did not let history repeat itself. They have learned that it’s the second shot that often beats you — not the first one — in late-clock situations.

But in that contest, UF did not allow UK to get off even one shot on the final possession. After Wildcats guard Andrew Harrison wasted about 10 seconds of clock and then dished the ball to James Young, Wilbekin and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II double-teamed the Kentucky wing. Young tripped and lost possession of the ball as time expired.

Florida made a good defensive read and Kentucky goofed, but it’s that ruthless mentality to not allow second-chance points that has benefitted the Gators so much this year. Florida’s 61-60 victory in the SEC Tournament title game was the perfect example of how much UF has tightened up its act defensively at the end of games.

Since falling to the Huskies, the Gators are 3-0 in games decided by three points or fewer and on a final play in which their opponent has the last possession.

“Any time we’re in a situation like that, even if it’s a shot-clock situation,” Wilbekin said, “we say, ‘Box out. Don’t run to the rim.’”

■ ■ ■

Wilbekin, perhaps Florida’s best on-ball defender, was not on the floor when Napier sealed UConn’s win on Dec. 2.

In fact, he did not even see the buzzer-beater live.

During the final minutes of the contest, Wilbekin was in the visitor’s locker room getting treatment for his right ankle — an injury he suffered at the 3:01 mark when he went up for an offensive rebound on his missed jumper and planted awkwardly on Connecticut guard Ryan Boatright’s foot.

Because there was no television in the locker room, Wilbekin learned the game’s result from Jack Pfaff, a UF assistant athletic director.

Florida’s floor general did not watch Napier’s victory jog to the locker room — or the UConn guard’s fist-pumping celebration as he returned to the floor. He did not watch his shell-shocked teammates walk off the court in disgust, knowing they let a quality win slip out of their hands.

“I just knew what the score was,” Wilbekin said. “It was definitely a disappointing loss.”

It was obviously a painful day for Wilbekin, but it’s one he could now leave in the past.

After a four-month wait, he and freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who missed the UConn game due to a high ankle sprain, will finally get their shot at revenge against Napier and the Huskies.

The “freak play” will forever live on, but Saturday night is a new chapter for both teams.

“The game was such a long time ago,” Wilbekin said. “They’re playing their best basketball right now, and I think we are doing the same. That’s what you have to do to be in this position at the Final Four. I don’t expect anything less than them to play their best game.”

Follow Landon Watnick on Twitter @LandonWatnick

Scottie Wilbekin calls out a play during Florida’s 62-52 win against Dayton on Saturday in FedExForum in Memphis, Tenn. Wilbekin was in the locker room with a high ankle sprain when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier hit his buzzer-beater shot to top Florida 65-64 on Dec. 2.

Shabazz Napier reacts after hitting the game-winner on Dec. 2 in a 65-64 UConn win over Florida.

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