Scottie Wilbekin is here because he kept a promise to his team.
Shabazz Napier is here because he kept a promise to his mother.
In return, both star senior guards have arrived in college basketball’s promised land — the Final Four.
Wilbekin’s Florida Gators (36-2) are the juggernauts, the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed and winners of 30 consecutive games.
Napier’s Connecticut Huskies (30-8) are surprise guests, the third-place finishers from an Alphabet Soup conference (the new American Athletic).
Combined, their schools have won four of the past 10 national championships. And whichever star plays best in Saturday’s national semifinal at the colossal home of the Dallas Cowboys is likely to be one win away from yet another title.
Put simply, they make their teams go. Wilbekin is a steady point guard, whose defense is nearly as good as his offense. Napier is a dynamic scorer, whose only bad shot is the one he doesn’t take.
They have met before — just four months ago.
The game ended with Wilbekin tucked away in the bowels of Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, Conn., laid out with an icepack on his ailing ankle. There was no scoreboard in the room. Only a game clock.
“I knew we were up one with however much time there was left,” Wilbekin recalled Friday. “I saw the clock go to :00, and heard the crowd cheer. That was it.”
From his perspective, sure. But Napier had a different view.
With eight seconds to go, the ball was where it usually is — in his hands. His next seven seconds were admittedly horrid. He nearly lost his dribble then offered up a shot that didn’t even touch the rim.
Remarkably, he got another chance. DeAndre Daniels somehow tapped the ball back and Napier got off a shot with a half-second remaining.
It went in, handing Florida its second loss of the season. The Gators haven’t lost since.
“It was a lucky play,” Napier said almost sheepishly. “I had a second opportunity to make it. That’s all you can ask for.”
It was arguably the highlight of Napier’s year — and inarguably Florida’s low point. Napier is at his second Final Four; he was a supporting player when the Huskies won in 2011.
The hero that year was Kemba Walker, the swaggering guard who took — and seemingly made — every big shot. Now Napier has assumed that role, averaging 18 points per game for UConn. Like Walker before him, Napier is a first-team All-American.
It’s rare that such a dynamic talent is still around as a senior. Most would have already jumped for the NBA. But he honored a commitment he made to his mother, Carmen Velasquez, to get his degree. Napier will graduate in May.
Wilbekin also was a longshot to be here this weekend, but for entirely different reasons. He couldn’t stay out of trouble in Gainesville, and after his second suspension last summer, coach Billy Donovan thought it might be best for him to transfer.
“I presented him the opportunity to leave if he wanted to start over fresh,” Donovan recalled again Friday. “He didn’t want to. But I felt like he needed to restore his credibility back inside the team.”
Said Gators center Patric Young: “We just knew that he was going to prove to each and every one of us, the coaching staff, that through the whole process, whatever Coach asked him to do, that he was going to stick with it.
“Once we have seen how committed he was to this team again, to be where he wanted to be, we all just embraced him and wanted him to come back to us and just know that we forgive him. We accept him. Let’s move forward and get the job done.”
Have they ever. The results: a school-record 30-game winning streak and the program’s fifth visit to the Final Four.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better season,” Wilbekin said.