GAINESVILLE, Fla. (MCT) – It took a buzzer beater by Shabazz Napier and a late-game injury to Scottie Wilbekin for the Connecticut Huskies to slip by the Florida Gators the last time the two teams met.
UConn will seek for more good fortune against the nation's hottest team, while the Gators look to settle a score with the surging Huskies when the teams meet again Saturday during the Final Four.
Since that dramatic 65-64 loss at UConn on Dec. 2, Florida (36-2) has reeled off 30 straight wins, with Wilbekin leading the way.
Meanwhile, the Napier-led Huskies (30-8) have gotten red-hot at the right time to return to the Final Four a year after the NCAA barred the school from the Big Dance due to poor academic performance.
The Huskies joined the 1984 Virginia Cavaliers as the only No. 7 seed to reach the Final Four after Napier scored 17 of his 25 points during the second half of Connecticut's upset of Michigan State Sunday. A day earlier, Wilbekin tied his career high with 23 points, including 14 in the first of half of a 62-52 win against Dayton.
Both guards were named most outstanding player of their regionals, setting the stage for a classic head-to-head matchup Saturday at AT&T Stadium _ home of the Dallas Cowboys.
Napier scored 24 points on Dec. 2 against the Gators, but hit the game-winner with Wilbekin, the Gators' defensive stopper, on the bench after he rolled his right ankle with three minutes remaining in the game.
Wilbekin finished with 15 points, but the Gators' inside game carried the day for Florida.
The Gators out-scored the Huskies 32-14 in the paint as UConn could not match 6-foot-10, 240-pound Patric Young and Casey Prather, who had a team-high 19 points. After Wilbekin was sidelined, Young scored Gators' next seven points to finished with 17 points on 6 of 10 shooting.
Against Dayton, Young was too physical inside for the Flyers to handle, finishing with 12 points, six rebounds and four blocked shots.
To beat UConn, the Gators likely will have to improve their shot selection and avoid offensive lulls against the aggressive Huskies.
A 3-point miss by forward Will Yeguete, a missed 15-footer by Young and a wild drive to the basket by freshman back-up point guard Kasey Hill helped Dayton keep close until Wilbekin took over. The 6-foot-2 senior scored nine of UF's final 14 points and assisted on a Michael Frazier II 3-pointer as the Gators built a 38-24 halftime lead.
But the Gators' offense became overly reliant on Wilbekin during the second half. At the same time, Dayton's depth and relentless pace wore down UF, which finished the second half 5 of 21 shooting.
Florida did, however, hit 12 of 17 second-half free throws and were relentless on the backboard, finishing with a 37-26 rebounding edge. Leading 58-50 with 3:41 to go, the Gators had four offensive rebounds on one possession to burn more than 40 precious seconds off the clock.
"Late, us rebounding helped us solidify our win," said Young, one of four Gators with at least six rebounds.
The Gators also had just seven turnovers against a Dayton team that forced 14 in a win against Ohio State in the opening round and 12 against Stanford in the Sweet 16.
UConn forced 16 Michigan State turnovers, while committing just eight. The Huskies also forced 16 Gators' turnovers four months ago, but turned over the ball 14 times themselves.
Expect another in-your-face, end-to-end game on Saturday.
If the game is close at the end, the Huskies have the edge shooting freethrows. UConn was 21 of 22 from the line against Michigan State, hitting 7 of 7 in the final five minutes. The 6-foot-1 Napier, who shoots better than 86 percent from the line, hit three freethrows with 37.6 seconds left after he was fouled during a 3-point attempt.
The Gators were 21 of 28 against Dayton, a nice improvement from their season average of 66.5 percent. But the foul line remains one of the weaker links for a Florida team without many flaws.