ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) - Mention Connecticut basketball and Shabazz Napier is the first name to come up.
“The one thing I would say with Shabazz, which is a little bit different, is he is a very, very good distributor of the ball,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said Friday of Napier, who leads the Huskies in scoring (18.1), rebounding (5.9) and assists (4.9), a first for the program.
He has scored at least 19 points in the four NCAA tournament games and there hasn’t been a big play made by the Huskies that hasn’t started or ended with the ball in his hands.
“He gets fouled a lot. He gets to the free throw line a lot. He opens up things for other guys. I would say Scottie Wilbekin maybe in a different way does some of those similar things for our team as well.”
Wilbekin, like Napier a senior, was the Southeastern Conference player of the year, an honor Napier took in the American Athletic Conference.
Wilbekin will have the ball in the final minutes for the Gators. He had a career-high 23 points in the win over Dayton in the South Regional final and the Huskies, and specifically Napier, will focus on Wilbekin.
“We understand that we have to be mentally there on the defensive end,” Napier said. “Shots may not fall for us offensively, but if we hang our hats on the defensive end, we have something to fall back on. … We have to stick together and communicate. Lately, we have been communicating much better on defense, and I think that is one of the main reasons why our defense has been much better.”
The last time Florida lost was Dec. 2 and the Gators have won every game since that loss at Connecticut - a school-record 30-game winning streak.
“They are playing great basketball. They are sharing the basketball. They are all playing hard. They haven’t lost since then. It will be really tough,” Huskies forward DeAndre Daniels said. “We feel great. … I feel like nobody is playing harder than us right now. We are just out there having fun and not playing for ourselves, but playing for each other.”
Connecticut, the seventh seed in the East Regional, has won nine of its past 11 with both losses to Louisville. That’s no 30-game winning streak but it’s enough to have the Huskies two wins from a fourth national championship and the first under a coach besides Jim Calhoun.
“I think that the confidence level our team has has been what it’s been really the entire year,” Donovan said. “These guys understand what goes into playing and competing, they’re really good as it relates to scouting report and preparation. I think they understand how hard they have to play, how well they have to play defensively together, offensively together.”
Napier hit a buzzer-beating jumper from the free throw line to give Connecticut (30-8) the 65-64 victory in Storrs, Conn., four months ago. The dramatic win didn’t exactly propel the Huskies as they lost three of their next five games.