ARLINGTON, Texas — In an era when youth is being served, experience has paid off for the teams meeting in the first Final Four semifinal tonight at 6.
Two of the most loyal and most important seniors when Florida (36-2) faces UConn (30-8) are guard Shabazz Napier, whose school wasn’t even allowed in the NCAA tournament last year, and center Patric Young, who could have been playing in the NBA a long time ago.
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 explains how two of the elite programs have moved forward.
When Florida fans talk about 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.’’
Napier 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 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, on Jan. 4, Kevin Ollie was in Arlington with his squad for a game at SMU. Before the game, the second-year Huskies coach 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, 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 against Florida — the Gators had a 34-26 advantage on the boards and were more dominant inside in the last meeting thanks largely to Young’s 17 points and seven rebounds. Four 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 — coincidentally, the last heartbreak coming last year in this same arena. But last week, Florida fought off UCLA and Dayton to finally reach the national semifinals.
Billy Donovan has repeatedly credited Young for staying and not bolting for the NBA. Like Napier, he’ll leave college with a degree.
“I give him a lot of credit for making decisions regarding his career in terms of what he wanted to do,’’ Donovan said. “I see a lot of people and a lot of kids make really some poor decisions because they’re influenced by other people and the wrong people.’’
The four seniors set a school mark with 120 career wins. The UConn loss dropped Florida to 19th in the polls, the low mark for both programs in the Top 25 this year. Like the Huskies, it was the seniors and the motivation of the coach that got things going. It also helped that UF was actually a beat-up team at that point.
Backup point guard Kasey Hill, for example, didn’t play against UConn because of an ankle sprain. Wilbekin was coming off a suspension and suffered an ankle injury late in the Huskies loss.
“It was pretty low,’’ Wilbekin said. “I’d say it was the lowest point for us.’’
Young elevated his play, and injuries and suspensions started winding down. Along the way, Young became the 50th Gator to score 1,000 points. Young had a combined 30 points and 13 rebounds in big late-season wins against Tennessee and Kentucky. In tournament play, he has pulled down 27 rebounds in four wins.
Toughness and consistency questioned, the 6-foot-9 Young is doing exactly what Donovan hoped — coming on strong at the end of his career. Florida had an obvious inside advantage against UConn in the first meeting. Yeguete helps there, too, with 12 points and 12 boards in the two regional wins last week in Memphis.
So, it’s almost fitting that the focus for both teams will be on seniors. It’s Napier outside, Young inside. Wilbekin, Prather and Yeguete also have big roles for Florida.
Youth could win out, but experience must answer the bell.
“I would not want to be in any other place than where I’m at right now with my guys, my senior class,’’ Young said. “I’m happy and really believe that I made the right choice in coming back this year. I have come to know God, and I feel like I am playing some of the best ball of my life. Either way, money isn’t everything to me.’’
Napier and Young both fulfilled dreams in their own ways and passed on money. Both dreamed of being back here after visiting before. But both want to take the court here one more time before moving on.
That would be in the national championship game Monday night.