In an era when youth is being served, experience has paid off for the two teams meeting in the first Final Four semifinal at 6 tonight. Two of the most loyal and the most important seniors when Florida (36-2) faces UConn (30-8) for a spot in Monday's national title game are a guard with a broken foot whose school wasn’t even allowed in the NCAA Tournament last year and a center who could have been playing in the NBA a long, long time ago who feels his greatest accomplishment was drawing closer to God in the past year. Everyone loves the hot performer, the great new taste, the popular saying, the latest cell phone. It's easy to move on and forget what anyone accomplished, especially in sports where stars are forgotten almost overnight. But for at least a moment tonight, looking back at the past explains how two of the elite programs have moved forward. When Florida fans talk about Shabazz Napier, they see the guy who hit a shot at the buzzer to hand the Gators a 65-64 loss on Dec. 2 — the last defeat before the start of a 30-game win streak. “It was a lucky play,” Napier said. “I had a second opportunity (on a tip back from forward DeAndre Daniels) and that’s all you can ask for.” He matched Andrew Wiggins’ 26 points as the most scored by a Florida opponent this season. Napier, a freshman on UConn’s last national title team in 2011, actually has seen the highs and lows of a college career. In 2013, the Huskies were ineligible for the postseason. So when the team concluded its regular season against Providence, rather that sit out with a stress fracture in his foot, the 6-foot-1 guard played in the game, then had surgery. Then came the decision. With a chance to enter the NBA Draft after his junior year, Napier instead elected to finish his college career and graduate — a promise he’d made his mother. “She had her excuses to give up,” Napier said of his mom. “But she didn’t. She kept believing in her children. ... It’s a special thing when you get your degree. That’s something that no one can take away from you.” Another national title would be special, too. UConn was given up for dead during a tough spot late in the season — falling all the way to No. 19 in the polls after a 33-point loss to Louisville in the American Athletic Conference tourney. Months earlier, head coach Kevin Ollie, in his second season, was in town with his squad for a game at SMU. Before the game, he took the team to AT&T Stadium. There were no fans around, but the idea was to show the squad the prize — a chance to play in the Final Four. “He wanted us to feel the atmosphere even though there was no one there besides us,” Napier said. In the massive stadium that will be filled with more than 70,000 fans today, the Huskies looked around and saw darkness. And the dream. Daniels was the guy who made the tip to Napier for the winning shot on Dec. 2. He has a massive role again trying to hold his own on the inside vs. Florida — that had a 34-26 advantage on the boards and was more dominant inside in the last meeting thanks largely to Patric Young’s 17 points and seven rebounds. Four different Gators had at least five rebounds in that game. “They are high right now,” Daniels said. “They are playing great basketball. They are sharing the basketball. They are playing hard. They haven’t lost since (Dec. 2). It will be really tough.” Talk about tough. Young and fellow seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather have endured reaching the Elite Eight three times only to miss the final Four — ironically the last heartbreak last year in this same arena. But last week, Florida fought off UCLA and Dayton to finally reach the national semifinals. Billy Donovan has credited Young for staying and not going to the NBA. Like Napier, he will leave Gainesville with a degree.
Senior-powered Gators, Huskies soar to Final Four
Florida Today | Apr 5