STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Florida was short-handed against Connecticut, especially in the final 3 minutes when point guard Scottie Wilbekin injured his ankle and headed for the locker room.
The 15th-ranked Gators, down to five players, still almost got a quality road win over the 12th-ranked Huskies until Shabazz Napier hit a jumper from the free throw line as the buzzer sounded for a 65-64 victory Monday night.
“We won a lot of games without Scottie,” center Patric Young said of Wilbekin, who missed the first four games of the season while he was suspended for undisclosed reasons. “We line up five guys and we’ll be OK. It would have helped having him in that situation, but it doesn’t matter who’s out there. We have to rebound the ball.”
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Florida not getting a rebound was the key to the last play and the Gators giving up offensive rebounds on the Huskies’ previous possessions was what disappointed coach Billy Donovan.
“We’ll probably do a lot of rebounding drills,” forward Casey Prather said.
Napier was standing alone when he hit the game-winner.
“I just felt I was fortunate enough to be in the right spot at the right time,” he said.”
That would have been the free throw line, where he gathered a loose ball after teammate DeAndre Daniels tipped back Napier’s miss of an off balance shot and buried a jumper at the buzzer.
“It went in slow motion,” said Napier, who scored 26 points and made a four-point play with 33 seconds to go. “Point nine. Point eight. I just tried to shoot the ball as quick as I can but still shoot it regular. As soon as I let it go I felt it was going in.”
Napier, limping a bit on a left ankle he hurt while making the four-point play, escaped a trap around 30 feet from the basket, recovered the ball and got off a wild shot that missed but was tipped blindly back by Daniels.
“I was just trying to get a tip-in in case he missed,” Daniels said. “I guess I glanced it a little bit but what an amazing player Shabazz is. He hit a great shot. He willed his team to win that game. He never gave up. The heart that kid has. Everybody on the team follows his lead.”
Donovan was happy with how his team defended the last possession. It was some loose ball rebounds in the play that led to Napier’s four-point play that disappointed him.
“We made the decision we would trap him and we got him to take a very difficult off-balance shot,” Donavan said. “The guy who won the game for them was DeAndre Daniels, who made an unbelievable tip out when he was off balance which kept the ball alive. We had guys on Napier who ran to the rim to defensive rebound which left a space for Napier. I have a lot of respect for Napier at the end of games. I think he’s a big shot-making guy. His shot was luck because it was tipped to him.”
Napier’s left-handed jumper went through as the horn sounded and set off a deafening cheer from the sellout crowd of 10,167 at Gampel Pavilion. He was 9 of 15 from the field, making 5 of 8 from 3-point range.
The Huskies (8-0) and Florida (6-2), which had a five-game winning streak snapped, battled down the stretch, exchanging the lead six times in the final 6 minutes.
Daniels had 14 points for Connecticut, which was outrebounded 34-26, but was able to make up a size difference with its strong guard play on the perimeter. This was Connecticut’s first game this season against a ranked opponent. Florida’s previous loss was in its only game against a ranked team, Wisconsin.
Prather had 19 points and seven rebounds for the Gators, while Young had 17 points and seven rebounds. Wilbekin, playing in his third game of the season, had 15 points but he injured an ankle with 3:01 to play, was taken to the locker room and never returned.
“I was concerned coming down the stretch with Scottie being out,” said Donovan, who said he knew it was a sprained ankle but to what he degree he wasn’t sure. “I didn’t think we could guard Napier at least for that 3 minutes. So we decided to play 1-3-1 zone and try to use our length. … We went man on the last possession.”
After Wilbekin left Young took over, scoring the Gators’ next seven points, two baskets on his hook shot and another on an offensive rebound.
That made it 62-59 Florida with 1:18 to play.
Connecticut missed two 3-point attempts but got the rebound on both. Napier took a 25-foot jumper that swished and he was fouled by Dorian Finney-Smith. The joy of the crowd was tempered as Napier stayed on the court for about a minute, holding his left ankle.
Ollie called a timeout so Napier could stay in the game and take the free throw. He made it to give the Huskies a 63-62 lead with 33 seconds left.
“I was more disappointed in the possession before the final play,” Donovan said. “I watched the film and there was no foul. But we missed two opportunities to rebound the ball. I was disappointed in that.'”
Michael Frazier II, with Connecticut paying a lot of attention to Young inside, drove to the basket and scored with 17 seconds left to give the Gators a 64-63 lead.
Florida outscored the Huskies 32-14 in the paint as Connecticut struggled to defend Young, who was 6 of 10 from the field.
Florida committed 16 turnovers, two more than the Huskies in a game that was physical on all 94 feet of the court.
The programs’ only other meeting was in the 1994 Sweet 16, when the Gators won 69-60 in overtime on the way to the Final Four.