Even 30 wins later, Gators can’t forget Shabazz Napier’s shot
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Four months ago, Scottie Wilbekin was alone in the locker room at Gampel Pavilion, his right ankle packed in ice, and without a television to see what was unfolding on the floor.
Jack Pfaff, a UF assistant athletic director, kept ducking in the door with quick updates.
What Wilbekin did have, though, was a game clock with bright red numerals on the locker room wall and he stared as it stopped and started with each official’s whistle. The last time it stopped before the final, frantic countdown was at 18 seconds.
"So I was watching it and just hoping to hear silence," said Wilbekin, the senior point guard who went on to become the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. "For a split-second, it hit zero, and there was nothing. But then … ."
Yeah. But then …
The shot will be replayed over and over and over again in the coming days. Rightfully so.
Grab a Florida basketball schedule and count backward all those W’s up the righthand column. One after another, 30 in a row, until you get back to Dec. 2 at Connecticut, where Huskies guard Shabazz Napier, named a first-team All-American on Monday, ripped UF’s collective hearts out with a 15-foot jump shot at the buzzer for a 65-64 win that turned Gampel gonzo.
Wilbekin heard the eruption. He didn’t hear Napier reveling in the scene. Just as well.
"Growing up, I wanted to be Superman!" Napier shouted after torching the Gators for 26 points, including 5-for-8 shooting from the 3-point line. "Everybody wants to be a hero."
That’s the last time Florida walked off a court with a loss. What happened that night in Storrs, Conn., figures to be quite newsworthy in the run-up to this weekend, when top-ranked Florida (36-2) takes on UConn (30-8) in a rematch of significantly more consequence than the first meeting — in the national semifinals of the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
It’s already been topical with both Florida coach Billy Donovan and UConn coach Kevin Ollie addressing it Monday for the first of what figures to be several dozen times before the next meeting tips off Saturday at 6:09 p.m ET.
"On that night, they were the better team," Donovan said. "They beat us."
Ollie has shown tape of the Florida game to his players throughout the course of the season as a reminder of what the Huskies are capable of achieving.
"When we encountered difficulties (and) weren’t playing up to our capabilities, you put that tape in," Ollie said. "They’ve been No. 1 pretty much the whole year. Haven’t lost. You can say, ‘You played with those guys. Don’t lose sight in the dark times when you fall down and say, We’re going to be here, camp out here.’ No, we’re going to move on."
Move on the Huskies did, busting the NCAA East Region bracket from their spot as a No. 7 seed.
Now, one of the best college basketball games of the season gets an encore.
First, some background:
— The game was UF’s eighth of the season and just the third game back for Wilbekin, coming off his five-game suspension to start the season, and sixth for sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, coming off his two-game suspension. Florida was 6-1 and ranked 15th in the country. UConn was 7-0 and ranked 12th.
— The Gators were without freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who went down with a high-ankle sprain two weeks earlier and missed his fourth straight game. Hill was averaging 10.3 points and 4.25 assists at the time of his injury.
— UF committed 16 turnovers in the game. That turned out to be the second-most of the season, one less than the season-high in overtime at Arkansas. Finney-Smith had six of them, an uncharacteristically careless outing for him.
— Florida shot 49 percent for the game, but made just three 3-pointers on only nine attempts, compared to 11 long balls by the Huskies. UF out-rebounded UConn 34-26.
— With the Gators down in numbers, walk-on forward Jacob Kurtz had to play six minutes.
— Wilbekin, who had 15 points that night, jumped for a rebound with 3:14 to play and rolled his ankle when he landed on the foot of UConn guard Ryan Boatright. Wilbekin remained on the floor for several minutes while tended to by UF’s health staff, then was carried to the locker room and stayed there the rest of the game.
— In a game that featured 14 lead changes and seven ties, Huskies forward Lasan Kromah knotted the score at 59-all with the second of two free throws with 1:34 remaining.
Then came a truly fantastic finish.
UF senior center Patric Young posted and threw in a jump hook — and was fouled with 1:18 to play — to give the Gators a two-point lead. Young converted the ensuing free throw for a 62-59 advantage.
Out of a timeout, the Huskies went looking for a 3-pointer to tie and to no one’s surprise it was Napier, only he missed and the long rebound went to Kromah for a shot-clock reset at 1:03 mark.
Ten seconds later, Napier jacked another 3, only this time, like Wilbekin, he came down on a defender’s foot. Unlike Wilbekin, Napier did not get injured. Unlike Wilbekin’s play, the defender (Finney-Smith) was called for a foul. And unlike Wilbekin’s, Napier’s shot went in. Tie game.
Napier sank the free throw to finish a four-point play that suddenly had the Huskies in front 63-62 with 34 seconds remaining.
After a Donovan timeout, the Gators ran offense that got sophomore guard Michael Frazier open on a drive and layup with 18 seconds to go for a 64-63 edge.
The Gators had no point guard in their huddle, including arguably the best on-ball perimeter defender in the country in Wilbekin. Donovan decided he was not going to let Napier just dribble at the top of the key, rock some helpless defender back and forth, then get free for an open jumper at the horn.
Instead, UF decided to show Napier a man-to-man look with Casey Prather, but then blitzed the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Young at the UConn guard for a trap at the top of the key. Napier was swallowed up by the Florida defenders, but managed to split the two, even momentarily losing the ball.
At that point, forward Will Yeguete also raced out from his man in the post, and with three guys around him, Napier pulled up and shot a split-legged jumper that had no chance. It hit the side of the backboard. No hint of the rim. But as the ball caromed off the board, Huskies 6-9 forward DeAndre Daniels got a hand on the ball and tipped it backward.
And this is important: Because UF had no point guard on the floor, the larger Gators’ natural collective action was to crash the glass to the exclusion of boxing or having a body near Napier. The tip landed in his hands at the free-throw line and Napier promptly dropped in an uncontested game-winner that launched his home floor into pandemonium. That was 120 days ago.
"I always say as a coach the best way to learn is through winning," Donovan said. "In that situation, a lot of times it’s the second shot that beats you, not the first one. When a shot goes up, the tendency is to want to go in there and want to go rebound. We obviously ran in way too deep. Actually three guys ran in below the free-throw line, and the ball got punched back out to Napier, and he was left with a wide open 15-foot jump shot. Hopefully, that’s something we’ve learned from."
Learn, certainly. Definitely not an easy one to forget, though.
Even if you didn’t see it.
"Both teams played well and it was a close game the whole time," Wilbekin said, turning his attention toward the the rematch. "I think it’s a good matchup. I think it’s a game we can win. It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to be tough to match up with them and all their shooters, but I think we have a good chance."
A better one if a certain guy is around at the end.