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Gene Frenette: This time, Gators can write a better ending

Posted: March 31, 2014 - 11:26pm  |  Updated: April 1, 2014 - 5:58pm
Connecticut's Shabazz Napier (13) goes up for the game-winning basket at the buzzer against Florida on Dec. 2, 2013, in Storrs, Conn. Connecticut won 65-64.
Jessica Hill/Associated Press
Connecticut's Shabazz Napier (13) goes up for the game-winning basket at the buzzer against Florida on Dec. 2, 2013, in Storrs, Conn. Connecticut won 65-64.
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Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin dribbles up the court against Pittsburgh on March 22 in Orlando.  Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press
Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin dribbles up the court against Pittsburgh on March 22 in Orlando.

When transcendent Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier put that last dagger in Florida four months ago — a 13-foot, buzzer-beating, hurry-up shot after catching a deflected rebound from teammate DeAndre Daniels — a frustrated Scottie Wilbekin never saw the play.

The Gators’ best defender was nursing his sprained ankle in a training room. He missed the final three minutes of Florida’s last defeat, a 65-64 road loss that left him powerless at the time. And now, plenty motivated for a do-over.

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Really, this is a perfect Final Four setup in Dallas for the No. 1-ranked Gators. Not only do they avoid Michigan State and versatile 6-foot-10 center Adreian Payne, a much tougher matchup, but UF can gain retribution against the Huskies, a game where both point guards have mega-star quality.

The sequel to Florida-UConn might come down to whether Wilbekin can impact the game on the same level as Napier, who has an NCAA tournament-high 93 points. Napier, with his uncanny knack for making deep 3-point shots and free throws (25 of 27 last four games), can explode at any moment.

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Coming Friday: Live chat with Gators beat writer Garry Smits from the Final Four

While Napier is the Mariano Rivera of college basketball — the best closer in the game — Wilbekin has also earned a reputation as Mr. Clutch. He tends to score when Florida most needs points, but still has the energy to be a defensive brute.

Over the past 10 days, the opposing team’s top perimeter player — Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson, UCLA’s Kyle Anderson and Dayton’s Jordan Sibert — has combined for 19 points on 7-of-25 shooting with Wilbekin as the primary defender.

“[Napier] is a really, really gifted offensive player and I think a gifted leader, as well,” said UF coach Billy Donovan. “Scottie Wilbekin is a great defender and Napier is a great offensive player. I always believe that great offense beats great defense.

“So this is not necessarily going to be a situation where Scottie is going to be playing Napier by himself. We’ve got to try to do as good of a job as we can collectively helping Scottie.”

Of all the great Final Four storylines, including Florida having already played each participant a combined five times, none might be more intriguing than the UConn rematch.

No matter how much players/coaches downplay revenge as incentive, the Gators (36-2) have to be chafing about that UConn loss. Yes, Wilbekin was on suspension for the defeat at Wisconsin, but the Badgers were in control and led for the final 23 minutes.

UConn is a different story. Even with Wilbekin sidelined at the end, Florida still could have won the game.

The Gators were up 62-59 in the final minute, until a four-point play by Napier against a 1-3-1 zone kept UConn alive. Had Wilbekin been available those last three minutes, would Napier have scored six points in the last 34 seconds? Does Napier get left alone for an open look on the final play?

None of that matters now. Florida and Wilbekin get another shot at UConn and Napier on a neutral court, with far higher stakes.

For the Gators, it’s the redemption opportunity of a lifetime.

gene.frenette@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359-4540