Florida Gators and UConn have rematch Saturday at 6:09 p.m.
BY EDGAR THOMPSON
GAINESVILLE – It has been 30 games — and 30 wins — since the Florida Gators lost on a buzzer-beater at Connecticut.
It might as well be 30 years to senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin.
“The game was such a long time ago,” Wilbekin said. “It feels like forever.”
Much has changed during the four months since Florida’s Dec. 2 loss and the teams’ rematch at 6:09 p.m. Saturday, April 5, in the Final Four.
The Gators have not lost a game, while the Huskies had to shake off a 33-point loss to Louisville March 8 to stay in contention for its fourth national title since 1999.
Yet, there is a familiarity between Florida and UConn uncommon to many of NCAA Tournament matchups.
Big shot maker
For one, the Gators will not be taken aback by the quickness and shot-making brilliance of Huskies’ guard Shabazz Napier. Napier hit the buzzer-beater to beat Florida, scored 25 points Sunday against Michigan State and was named a first-team All-American Monday by the Associated Press.
“He’s a great scorer,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said Monday. “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.”
Meanwhile, UConn knows it will be locking horns with a UF team that gives no quarter for 40 minutes.
“Every cut they make is hard,” Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said. “Every screen they set is hard. For us to beat a team like that, we couldn’t relax one minute.”
Series of blind dates
Donovan said the Big Dance usually is a series of blind dates that make preparation more challenging than usual.
The Gators, for example, had never faced a 6-foot-9 point guard like UCLA’s Kyle Anderson. Anderson kept his team close during the Sweet 16 until a late-game flourish by Wilbekin pushed Florida to a 79-68 win.
“That’s what happens in a tournament sometimes,” Donovan said. “You don’t see things personnel-wise, size, quickness, speed. It’s a little bit different when you haven’t had a chance to prepare for it.”
In the case of UConn, Donovan said, “you at least a reference point of what you’re dealing with there.”
The win over the Gators has been a key reference point during UConn’s postseason turnaround. Ollie made his team watch clips of the UF game after the Huskies lost 81-48 March 8 at Louisville.
“We can beat No. 1,” Ollie told his team. “We already proved it.”
Confidence in Hill
UConn (30-8) will have to do it again with Wilbekin and freshman back-up point guard Kasey Hill at full strength.
Wilbekin rolled his ankle with 3:01 remaining in the first meeting. He sat in a training room without a television when Napier hit the game-winning shot, hearing the news from a member of Florida’s staff.
Hill was stuck on the Gators’ bench, nursing a high ankle sprain. The past few weeks, Hill has sparked the team off the bench, highlighted by a 10-assist game against UCLA.
“Kasey has come on,” Donovan said. “I have confidence in him. He makes our team faster.”
The Huskies are surging since Ollie replayed the Gators’ game a few weeks back.
UConn beat two higher-ranked teams in the American Athletic Conference Tournament — Memphis and Cincinnati — to get another shot at Louisville, falling 71-61 in the final.
No. 1 seed
A No. 7 seed in the East Region, UConn defeated St. Joe’s 89-81 in overtime, No. 2 Villanova by 12 points, No. 3 Iowa State by five and No. 4 Michigan State by six to make an improbable run to the Final Four.
The Gators, the No. 1 overall seed, have won their four games by an average of 12.3 points and not trailed during the second half in any game.
“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. I don’t expect anything less than them to play their best game.”