Scottie Wilbekin was lying on the floor in the Connecticut visitors' locker room in December, his sprained ankle packed in ice as his Florida teammates tried to close out the final 3-1/2 minutes of the game. There was a game clock but no television in the locker room, so he got updates from a student manager. Ultimately, the crowd told him everything he needed to know.
"I knew we were up by one with however much time there was, but then I saw the clock go to zero and then I heard the crowd cheer," Wilbekin said Friday. "That was when I knew."
UConn defeated the Gators 65-64 on a buzzer-beater by fellow senior point guard Shabazz Napier. Wilbekin, scored 15 and had three rebounds in 35 minutes. Now, he hopes to see a game against UConn to its conclusion.
No. 1 overall seed Florida plays No. 7 UConn tonight in the first of two NCAA Tournament national semifinal games at AT&T Stadium.
The showcase of Wilbekin and Napier, two conference players of the year and All-Americans (Napier first team, Wilbekin third), has been highly anticipated.
But Napier said many are trying to portray the game as a one-on-one affair, which is not going to be the case.
"Of course, I'm going to get the you versus him, and it's fine with me, I understand it," Napier said. "I'm just here trying to win games. I'm not trying to compete with him one-on-one. I know Scottie's going to bring his A game because he's got that. We've got to bring our A game as well as a team. It's going to be a dogfight. It's going to be a tough game. And I'm going to give everything I've got."
Napier is the Huskies' leading scorer, averaging 18.1 per game, but he also leads the team in assists and rebounds.
"I always look forward to the challenge of guarding an impressive offensive player because it gives me a chance to work on my defense, which I really like because I pride myself on my defense," Wilbekin said. "So it gives me a chance to go up against the best, and he's the best in the NCAA. So it's going to be fun, it's going to be exciting and challenging, just because of all the weapons he has on offense."
Napier's game is threefold: He can shoot the 3-pointer, he can hit the pull-up jumper and he can drive to the basket. And that, Florida coach Billy Donovan said, is why containing Napier will be a group assignment for the Gators.
"I've always said this, and I do believe this: Great offense always beats great defense," Donovan said. "Shabazz is a great offensive player. And Scottie is a great defensive player. But Scottie is not going to be able to deal with Shabazz one-on-one. We have been a team that's played collectively as a group on the defensive end of the floor. ... To put Scottie on an island and expect him all by himself to handle him, Shabazz is too gifted offensively. It's got to be a group effort."
Wilbekin has been clutch for the Gators with big-time shots, particularly taking over games down the stretch. He can drive the ball or hit a 3-pointer.
"That's the type of competitor you want to play against, someone that understands their role, but at the same time someone that understands their supporting role," Napier said. "His team's been winning, and when your team is winning and you're the point guard, it revolves around you, it doesn't matter what anybody says. So he's a great talent."
While the Gators will defend as a group, UConn will play as one, coach Kevin Ollie said, and the game's outcome won't hinge on just two players.
"Shabazz is a great player, don't get me wrong," he said. "But I think we've got more balance than a lot of people give us credit for."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.
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Tonight: Final Four
at Arlington, Texas
TV: TBS (and more options, 2C)
Radio: 1250-AM, 98.7-FM
No. 1 Florida (36-2) vs. No. 7 Connecticut (30-8), 6:09
No. 2 Wisconsin (30-7) vs. No. 8 Kentucky (28-10), about 8:50