NEW YORK – It’s been quite a long time since the University of Florida lost a game. To be specific, it’s been 118 days since the Gators last tasted defeat at the hands of the University of Connecticut on Dec. 2.
Twenty-nine games after Huskies senior guard Shabazz Napier beat the Gators at the buzzer, 65-64, with a fade-away foul-line jumper at a sold out Gampel Pavilion, the two sides will meet again. This time, it will be at the Final Four after the Huskies came from nine down in the second half to defeat Michigan St., 60-54, in Sunday’s East Regional final at Madison Square Garden.
Napier was named East Regional Most Outstanding Player after scoring 25 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists against the Spartans. In four NCAA Tournament games, the Roxbury, Mass. native has scored 93 points for an average of 23.3 points per outing.
That Dec. 2 game stayed with the theme of Napier carrying the offensive load as he scored 26 points on 9-for-15 shooting, including that game-winning jumper.
“They’re a great team, they’re playing some great basketball and it’s gonna be a great matchup,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said out on the Garden floor in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s win. “I got so much respect for (Florida head coach) Billy Donovan and what he did in being in three Elite Eights and then finally getting their shot to go to the Final Four. I know it’s gonna be special for him, it’s gonna be special for me and I love to compete. With Florida, you’ve gotta compete 40-full and that’s what we believe in.”
Florida defeated Dayton, 62-52, in Saturday’s South Regional final after losing in the Elite Eight each of the last three seasons.
The first meeting, in which UConn was ranked 12th and Florida 15th, was a tightly-contested affair as neither side led by more than five over the final 10 minutes. With the game going to the wire, Michael Frazier hit a layup off a Casey Prather assist to give Florida 1-point lead with 18 seconds left. That was followed by Napier missing a jumper, the ensuing rebound ricocheting back to him and him canning the game-winner.
That is the play that gets remembered from the game, which moved UConn to 8-0 at the time, but what Napier and junior guard Ryan Boatright remember is the defense played.
The teams combined for 30 turnovers, resulting in 38 points, Boatright was held to just nine points and Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who went on to be named SEC Player of the Year, was held to just 6-for-14 shooting before fouling out with 3:01 to play.
“From that game I just remember a lot of scrambling on defense,” Boatright said. “Coach showed us the tape before we started winning these games, 2we got back together and that tape is crazy. We were everywhere, we were helping each other, we were closing out right and we were rebounding the basketball. So when we got to go out there and play them, we got to play great defense.”
“It was great defense on our part,” Napier said. “It was a dogfight, a tough game and it came down to one last shot. I expect it to be the same, a dogfight. And Coach is going to get us prepared for this game and let’s get down there and do our thing.”
The jury seems to be out what type of NBA future Napier may have. At 6-foot-1 and just 180 pounds, Napier is probably of slight build for the next level, but he has shown himself to be a winner and is unafraid of taking a game in his hands. In his 3-plus seasons in Storrs, Napier has won 102 games and was a key piece of the rotation during the program’s 2011 national title run
DraftExpress currently has Napier slotted as the No. 51 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, but not everyone agrees anymore with that assessment.
“First round,” a veteran NBA scout told SNY.tv. “Smart, tough, clever, lives for the big moment. He has improved every year.”
Said a second NBA scout: “Second-rounder, third guard [on an NBA team].”