ARLINGTON, TEXAS – Scottie Wilbekin lay flat on his back, helpless.
The Florida point guard’s twisted right ankle was on ice and both eyes were fixed on the game clock on the training room wall at Connecticut’s Gambel Pavilion.
There was no TV or scoreboard in the room, so all Wilbekin could do was listen. He heard the roar, and his heart sank.
UConn guard Shabazz Napier had just hit a buzzer-beater to hand the Gators a 65-64 loss.
“I saw the clock go to zero, and then I heard the crowd cheer,” Wilbekin recalled Friday. “I’d say it was the lowest point [all season] for us.”
If not for a late-game ankle injury, Wilbekin, the Gators’ best on-ball defender, might have prevented the Dec. 2 defeat. Four months and 30 consecutive victories later, Wilbekin and the Gators (36-2) will get a chance to find out — this time during the Final Four.
While many factors could determine who wins the Gators-Huskies rematch, the Wilbekin-Napier matchup will take center stage when the teams square.
“It’s one everybody is going to want to see,” Huskies senior forward Tyler Olander said. “They’re going to battle. Shabazz is huge for us, and Wilbekin is the same for them.”
Wilbekin made six of Florida’s final eight baskets against Pittsburgh, took control during the final minutes against UCLA in the Sweet 16 and tied his career high with 23 points during the Elite Eight against Dayton.
Napier has averaged 23.3 points per game during the NCAA tournament, scoring 17 of his 25 points during second half of Sunday’s upset of Michigan State.
Despite carrying his team’s hot hand, neither player views Saturday’s game as a head-to-head matchup between All-America point guards.
“Of course I’m going to get that, him vs. him,” Napier said. “It’s fine with me. I understand it. I’m here to win games. I’m not here to try to compete 1-on-1.
“I know Scottie is going to bring his A-game. [We’ve] got to bring our A-game. It’s going to be a dogfight. I’m going to give everything I got because there’s no coming back.”
Wilbekin vs. Napier is a rare meeting of senior stars in a sport in which younger players dominate the headlines while passing through on their way to the NBA.
Adding to the intrigue of Saturday’s point guard duel is the way the teams’ first meeting ended and the ensuing course of their seasons.
Wilbekin, back from for his third game back from a five-game suspension, held his own against Napier on Dec. 2. But he rolled his right ankle with 3:01 remaining, leaving the game with 15 points, two assists, two steals and three turnovers.
Relegated to a training room, Wilbekin relied on Jack Pfaff, a Florida assistant athletic director, to relay updates. Only later did Wilbekin realize Napier forced an off-balance shot that did not find the rim, yet deflected back to him off the hand of UConn’s DeAndre Daniels. Napier then hit the winner.
“It was just a fortunate play for us, a lucky play for us,” he said.
Being unable to help made a tough loss even tougher for Wilbekin. But the game would serve as a catalyst for the Gators, who have not lost since.
“It’s always difficult to lose a close game, and if it’s a buzzer-beater, it’s heartbreaking,” Wilbekin said. “But from that point on, you just try to work hard, not take any practices for granted, listen to what Coach D [Billy Donovan] had to tell us and just come together as a group.
“It’s all been worth it.”