Billy Donovan's Florida Gators boast four seniors in their starting lineup, but it was Kevin Ollie's veteran leader who came up big when his team needed him most.
Shabazz Napier scored six points in the final 33.5 seconds, including the game-winning jumper as time expired, as No. 12 Connecticut defeated No. 15 Florida 65-64 at the Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on Monday night.
Hosting their first major game as a charter member of the American Athletic Conference, Connecticut students filled the stands and made life difficult for a Florida squad already dealing with its own issues. The Huskies battled back to give those on hand a reason to celebrate long into the Storrs night.
“It wasn’t just Shabazz, but Shabazz created everything for us,” Ollie said after the game. “We just played and we stayed with it. We are fighters. That’s what we do, we fight until the last [possession].”
Ahead 62-59 with just over a minute to go, the Gators allowed Connecticut three different chances to get back into the game. Napier's first attempt missed and so did Lasan Kromah's, but the third time was the charm. Taking a shot well beyond the collegiate three-point arc, Napier hit the bottom of the net and drew a foul on Dorian Finney-Smith.
After hitting the free throw to put Connecticut up 63-62, Napier had to play the hero once more after a clutch layup from Michael Frazier II.
Again, the possession wasn't pretty. Napier nearly turned the ball over on an aggressive trap and threw up a wild prayer on his first shot attempt, but he was there to grab his own rebound and get off a contested look just before the clock struck zero.
“It comes with experience. When I was a young kid on my team, I was the go-to guy,” Napier said. “But on this team, when you have a bunch of guys who have been go-to guys, they gave me the road. Anybody can knock shots down, any of these guys can take the last shot, but these guys had a lot of faith in me. I tried my best to make the shot, and I was blessed.”
It was a fitting end to a brilliant game from Napier, who finished with a game-high 26 points. Connecticut has now won four games this season by one possession, three of which came by a single point.
“We’re a pack, we play together,” Ollie said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
The loss obscured the efforts of Gators seniors Casey Prather (19 points, seven rebounds) and Patric Young (17 points, seven rebounds), who took turns carrying the team during the contest.
Prather and Young proved especially clutch when Donovan's rotation, already shortened by injury and off-the-court issues, suffered another hit late in the second half. Scottie Wilbekin went down with a leg injury. The senior guard was on the court almost the entire game before going down, doing his best to cover Napier and serving as the Gators' primary ball-handler. He finished with 15 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
After the game, Donovan indicated he wasn't sure how long Wilbekin will be out, via Kevin Brockway of The Gainesville Sun:
Billy D said initial diagnosis for Scottie Wilbekin is an ankle sprain, "the severity I don't know."— Kevin Brockway (@gatorhoops) December 3, 2013
His absence forced Donovan into a 1-3-1 zone, which may have played a factor in Connecticut's prominence on the offensive glass. Three of the Huskies' eight offensive boards came on their final two possessions.
In a contest that rarely was beyond a two-possession deficit for either side, in which neither squad led by more than eight, both teams have to feel like they have some claim to the contest.
After a slow start, the Gators clamped down defensively and got back in the game. Niels Giffey's jumper with 10:59 remaining in the first half gave the Huskies a 14-11 lead, but Florida then held Connecticut scoreless for more than four minutes as the shots started to drop.
Prather, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith quickly dropped nine points into the basket, going ahead by as many as six before Napier ended the run with a two-point jumper.
That shot seemingly got Napier into a rhythm. The senior guard scored seven of the Huskies' next 10 points and sent the sea of blue and white into a frenzy. The run allowed Connecticut to tie the game at 24-24, and two three-pointers from DeAndre Daniels and Ryan Boatright allowed Ollie's side to take a 30-29 lead going into the break.
The second half was also one of runs, with Florida starting out by making eight of its first 11 shots, seemingly taking control on the back of Prather. One of just eight scholarship players on the roster, Prather scored 11 points in the first eight minutes of the second half, stretching the lead for the Gators all the way to 48-41 with 12:04 remaining.
But as they proved throughout Monday night's contest, the Huskies are resilient down to the final whistle.
The teams have only met once prior, a 69-60 victory for Florida in the 1994 NCAA tournament. Florida has now lost five straight road games against non-conference ranked opponents.
|F Will Yeguete||D|
|F Casey Prather||A-|
|C Patric Young||A-|
|G Scottie Wilbekin||B+|
|G Michael Frazier II||B-|
|F Dorian Finney-Smith||C+|
|F Jacob Kurtz||C|
|G DeVon Walker||C|
|F DeAndre Daniels||B|
|F Phillip Nolan||C|
|G Ryan Boatright||C|
|G Omar Calhoun||C|
|G Shabazz Napier||A|
|Kentan Facey, F||C|
|Tyler Olander, F||C|
|Amida Brimah, C||C|
|Lasan Kromah, G||B-|
|Niels Giffey, G||B-|
Co-Players of the Game: Shabazz Napier (G, UConn), Casey Prather (F, Florida)
It's difficult to find two players who single-handedly did more for their teams to win than Napier or Prather. The two seniors made plays when their teams needed them the most while their teammates turned in nondescript offensive performances.
Napier's team won, so it's hard not to start with him. He's been dazzling the fans in Storrs for three years now with his ability to attack the rim and then make the proper decision, creating for himself and others.
What's new this season and what came through for UConn on Monday is his increased efficiency. After hovering around the gunner Mendoza Line (40 percent) for his career, Napier is making nearly half his shots on the season.
He made them at the perfect time on Monday.
And it's important to highlight just how far Prather has come. The 6'6" forward came into his senior campaign having never played an integral role for Donovan. His first two seasons in Gainesville were spent at the very end of the bench, and even as a junior last year he scored only 6.2 points per game.
But with injuries and poor decisions from his teammates leaving the Gators bereft of talent, Prather has thrived. He's now scoring right around 19 points per game and giving Florida an inside presence. It's been an extremely impressive breakout.
Neither player was perfect, but both were stellar enough for their teams to win on Monday. It just so happened Napier performed a little better when it came down to the wire.
Florida's schedule isn't getting easier anytime soon. The Gators return to Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Dec. 10 to take on Andrew Wiggins and No. 6 Kansas as part of their three-game gauntlet against ranked teams.
Connecticut can probably breathe a sigh of relief. The Huskies host 1-5 Maine on Friday.
All quotes firsthand via ESPN broadcast unless otherwise cited.
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