Stopping Shabazz: Florida’s Wilbekin, an All-SEC defender, is up to the task

John Bazemore/AP Photo Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin, celebrating a first-half shot in the regional final against Dayton, will be charged with figuring out how to stop UConn's Shabazz Napier when the programs meet Saturday in the national semifinals. Napier had 26 points the last time the teams met.

Arlington, Texas - Florida's Scottie Wilbekin loves a defensive challenge.

"I always like guarding guys that are challenging to guard," Wilbekin said during Thursday's press conference at AT&T Stadium.

He'll get another shot at guarding All-American Shabazz Napier on Saturday night when the Florida men's basketball team plays UConn in the national semifinals.

In the first meeting between the teams, Wilbekin and Florida failed to stop Napier, who scored a game-high 26 points and hit a buzzer-beating, game winning shot in UConn's 65-64 win on Dec. 2 in Storrs.

Wilbekin, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, watched the final three minutes from the bench, scoring 15 points before leaving the game with an ankle injury. Napier took advantage, dominating down the stretch.

The top-ranked Gators (36-2) haven't lost since that game, winning 30 in a row.

Wilbekin earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors. He also was named the South Region's Most Outstanding Player, averaging 16.8 points in four games.

Florida earned a rematch with UConn by beating Dayton 62-52 in the Elite Eight on Saturday.

"As far as getting another crack at them, it's really not about that because I'm just happy to be here with an opportunity to advance," Wilbekin said. "They're a great team. They've obviously played great up until this point, so it's going to be a tough game for both of us."

Wilbekin is considered a tenacious defender, making the All-SEC Defensive Team along with teammate Patric Young. Still, he may need some help in defending Napier, who is averaging 23.3 points per game in the tournament.

"Kevin (Ollie) really puts him in some very, very unique situations that he can do the things that he does," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He can beat you with drives, he can beat you with shots, he can beat you from behind the line and he can beat you passing the ball."

Napier was named to the Consensus All-America first team on Thursday, joining Arizona's Nick Johnson, Creighton's Doug McDermott, Duke's Jabari Parker and Louisville's Russ Smith. The consensus All-America team is chosen from a combination of the Associated Press, USBWA, NABC and Sporting News All-America teams.

With his selection, Napier automatically qualifies for the school's Huskies of Honor.

Heart-warming news

UConn coach Kevin Ollie received some heart-warming news Wednesday, learning that his mother Dorothy was cleared to fly to Texas and attend the Final Four.

Dorothy, who has a home in Plano, Texas, has been living with her son's family in Connecticut while receiving chemotherapy for stage two breast cancer. She had surgery at the UConn Health Center on March 24.

Dorothy, along with Ollie's wife Stephanie, were scheduled to arrive here on Thursday.

"That was great news," Ollie said. "My wife has done a beautiful job taking care of her and being there and I was able to continue to do my job. … It's going to be great to see her here.

"She wanted to come down to Madison Square Garden (last weekend), but I was, like, no, save your energy for the Final Four."

Ollie was born in Dallas and moved to Los Angeles with his mother when he was five years old but spent some summers in Texas with his father.

Jerry's World

AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, is a massive, state-of-the-art arena. It is referred to as Jerry's World, after team owner Jerry Jones.

The 80,000 seat stadium opened in 2009 and cost $1.3 billion to build. It hosted the South Regional semifinals and finals last season when Florida beat Florida Gulf Coast and then lost to Michigan.

UConn practiced here for the first time on Thursday morning, going 90 minutes. All four teams, including Kentucky and Wisconsin, will hold an open workout today and a shoot-around on game day.

The Final Four coaches are happy that the NCAA decided to give teams an extra day to work out in the unfamiliar surroundings.

"I really appreciate the giving us this opportunity," Ollie said. "Back in 2011 down in Houston, we didn't have a 90-minute practice. … So this really allows our players to see the ball going in. We always want to see that."

News and notes

Ollie had a couple of contract bonuses kick in with UConn advancing to the Final Four, earning about $100,000 for the postseason run. … All four teams attended the annual NCAA Salute Dinner on Thursday night.

g.keefe@theday.com

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