Florida finds familiar foes in Final Four
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) For Florida, the Final Four might as well be dubbed the Familiar Four.
The top overall seed in the NCAA tournament already played the other three teams headed to Arlington, Texas, for college basketball’s most prestigious event.
Florida’s only losses this season came at Wisconsin (Nov. 12) and at Connecticut (Dec. 2), and the Gators (36-2) beat Kentucky three times in the same season for the first time in program history.
All that familiarity could work in Florida’s favor. Then again, it might eliminate the element of surprise in a tournament filled with short turnarounds.
”It definitely helps,” coach Billy Donovan said Monday. ”It helps both teams. There will be a familiarity there because they’ve been on the floor with those guys. … It gives you at least a reference point of what you’re dealing with there.”
Florida plays seventh-seeded UConn in the first semifinal Saturday night. No. 2 seed Wisconsin and eighth-seeded Kentucky play in the other. The winners advance to the championship game Monday night.
The Gators vividly remember one thing about their last loss: All-American guard Shabazz Napier’s buzzer-beater that gave the Huskies a 65-64 victory.
”The game was such a long time ago. It feels like it was forever,” guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
With Wilbekin in the locker room for the final few minutes and getting treatment on his sprained right ankle, Florida went to a 1-3-1 zone in hopes of slowing down Napier. It didn’t work.
The Gators were up 62-59 with 1:18 to play, but allowed two offensive rebounds off missed 3-pointers. Napier eventually swished a 25-footer and got fouled. He completed the four-point play and was just getting started.
After Michael Frazier II put Florida ahead 64-63 with 17 seconds left, Napier escaped a trap 30 feet from the basket and launched a wild shot that missed badly. With the Gators collapsing toward the basket, teammate DeAndre Daniels tipped the ball back to Napier, who swished the game-winner at the buzzer.
”That’s what really sticks out in my mind, but I know there were other things in the game that we didn’t do very well,” Frazier said. ”So it wasn’t just that one play that helped us lose the game. There were plenty of things. But that play sticks out in my head.”
Florida certainly missed Wilbekin’s defense down the stretch against UConn. The Gators also were without backup guard Kasey Hill because of a high-ankle sprain and didn’t even have highly touted big man Chris Walker on campus yet.
Hill has been at his best in the NCAA tournament, scoring 21 points in four games to go along with 15 assists and 12 rebounds. Walker continues making strides, although he remains buried on the bench behind Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith.
The Gators were even more short-handed in the loss at Wisconsin, playing without Wilbekin and Finney-Smith because of early season suspensions. Florida used an eight-man rotation that included Hill and fellow guard DeVon Walker in the starting lineup and Eli Carter, who was still recovering from a broken leg, and former team manager and walk-on Jacob Kurtz coming off the bench.
The Badgers shot better and rebounded better than Florida in a 59-53 win in both teams’ second game of the season.
”From a preparation standpoint, we can take some things from previous games, things we need to do better,” Donovan said. ”I think every team right now, since we’ve played them, has evolved in some ways. Hopefully we’ve evolved as well.”
There’s no doubt freshman-laden Kentucky has evolved since getting drilled by Florida in mid-February and again in early March. The Gators won the first meeting by 11 points, the second by 19 and the third in a one-point nail-biter in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game.
While the Gators would gladly welcome any pairing if they get to the title game, they probably would rather get plodding Wisconsin than another matchup with improving Kentucky.
”I’m confident in our team regardless of who we’re playing,” Wilbekin said. ”But at the end of the day, if you’re at the Final Four, it’s never going to be easy.”