UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
Florida looks to avenge December loss to UConn in Final Four
Published: Monday, March 31, 2014 at 8:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 31, 2014 at 9:35 p.m.
After rolling his ankle while chasing a loose ball, Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin stayed in the locker room in the closing minutes the last time Florida played at Connecticut.
At AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas
Connecticut (30-8) vs. Florida (36-2)
WHEN: Saturday, 6:09 p.m.
There was no TV, so Wilbekin was spared the heartbreak of watching UConn senior guard Shabazz Napier's buzzer-beating shot. He learned of the outcome when a staff member arrived back before the rest of the team.
“It feels like it was forever ago,” Wilbekin said of UF's 65-64 loss to Connecticut on Dec. 2.
Florida will have a chance to avenge that loss, and perhaps one more, in a rematch with Connecticut on Saturday in a Final Four filled with familiarity. Oliver Stone couldn't have written this script. If the favored Gators get by the Huskies at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, they will face either a rematch with a Wisconsin team that beat the undermanned Gators 59-53 last November or attempt to go 4-0 on the season against Southeastern Conference rival Kentucky.
“It makes it easier to prepare for UConn 'cause we already played them once,” Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said. “But we're not really focused on the other two teams 'cause we're only promised one more game."
Florida coach Billy Donovan said that familiarity will help both teams in the UConn matchup.
“It gives you at least a reference point of what you're dealing with there,” Donovan said. “I think from a preparation standpoint, both teams kind of know each other. We're not in the same league. We've played each other once. It was a long time ago, early December, both teams were out there competing, and both teams have an idea of size, length, speed, quickness.”
The Gators (36-2) have won a school-record 30 straight since the Connecticut loss. But they've seen few guards since as explosive as Napier, who scored 26 points in the last meeting. Only Kansas freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins, who declared for the NBA draft on Monday, scored as many points (26) against the Gators this season.
“He is a great scorer,” Donovan said of Napier. “He can do it by himself. He doesn't need necessarily a lot of help or a lot of screening. He's been a big shot maker his whole entire career.”
In its last meeting with Connecticut, Florida played the entire game without injured freshman point guard Kasey Hill and the final 3:01 without Wilbekin. At the time, the Gators trailed 57-55. With Frazier running the offense at point guard, Florida actually played strong on the offensive end, with Patric Young scoring seven straight points and Frazier hitting an inside short jumper to put Florida up 64-63.
But Florida missed Wilbekin more on the defensive end of the floor. With Wilbekin out, Florida was forced to play zone defense on its second-to-last defensive possession, which helped Connecticut grab two offensive rebounds before Napier converted a four-point play. Napier wound up scoring the last six points for the Huskies.
While the Gators have rolled since, Connecticut has taken a different path to its sixth Final Four appearance in school history. The Huskies were 7-0 at the time they beat the Gators, but went 19-8 in their next 27 games. Connecticut came into the NCAA tournament a seven seed after losing 71-61 to Louisville in the American Athletic Conference tournament finals and needed overtime to beat St. Joseph's 89-81 in its first NCAA tournament game. But since, UConn has knocked off higher seeds Villanova (77-65), Iowa State (81-74) and Michigan State (60-54) to earn a trip to Arlington.
“They're playing their best basketball right now, and I think we're doing the same,” Wilbekin said. “That's what you have to do to be in this position, in the Final Four. I don't expect anything less than them to play their best game."
After breaking through the Elite Eight barrier, Florida players face a new challenge — managing the Final Four.
While no current UF player has been to a Final Four, Donovan has been part of a Final Four as a player, assistant coach and head coach. He said the most important part is to manage distractions such as ticket requests and extra media requests.
“There is obviously an enormous amount of attention placed on the event, and our guys just need to understand that we're there to play basketball,” Donovan said. “We've been fortunate enough to get an opportunity to play another 40 minutes. Sometimes with all that takes place in the Final Four, you can really, really get distracted on some of those things.
“It will be very important that we keep ourselves focused mentally and emotionally, and even physically on things that we need to do to get ourselves prepared to play on Saturday.”
Frazier said his family is pretty good about not hounding him too much for ticket requests. Each player gets six tickets for the Final Four, but players can ask from more from teammates if they have less than six family members or friends coming.
“I do a pretty good job of handling it well before the game starts so I don't have to worry about it,” Frazier said.
Wilbekin earned more accolades Monday when he was named a third-team Associated Press All-American. The 6-foot-2 Gainesville native is averaging 13.4 points and 3.7 assists and has been terrific in the NCAA tournament, where he is averaging 16.7 points, 3 assists and 1.5 steals in four games.
In addition, Florida senior forward Casey Prather and senior center Patric Young were named honorable mention to the AP All-American team. The 6-foot-6 Prather, UF's leading scorer at 13.8 points per game, also was named to the Wooden All-American team Monday.
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or email@example.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.