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NCAA Tournament 2014: Shabazz Napier, and the moment that changed everything

Florida's learned a lot over this sensational season. But the best teacher is experience, and Shabazz Napier gave the Gators one hell of an experience in December.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

It felt like the same old ending for Florida.

The Gators allowed too many big threes. A lead had evaporated down the stretch. Someone was unavailable at a crucial moment.

And Shabazz Napier hit that shot.

That night, just after Florida's 65-64 loss, former The Independent Florida Alligator writer R.J. Schaffer sent off an easy tweet about Florida "choking," one that he seems to have deleted since.

I, um, responded:

That seems so long ago at this point. I don't regret pushing back against the "choke" claim and the narrative that goes with it — and not just because Florida hasn't choked or "choked" or lost since.

But Florida was helped by that loss more than it would have been helped by a win.

The team we see now is not the team that took the floor in Storrs that night. Scottie Wilbekin was making his third start of the season that night, and Dorian Finney-Smith played in his sixth game as a Gator. Kasey Hill was still suffering from the high ankle sprain he suffered against Southern, one that kept him out of four games. Will Yeguete was still working into form after offseason knee surgery.

And, crucially, Wilbekin turned his ankle in the final minutes of that contest, leaving Florida without a point guard to defend Napier on the final few possessions.

Napier had 26 points on that night, and his highlight reel from that game is practically tough shot after tough shot, though Florida's not always contesting as well as it can. (Side note: This was pretty definitely Finney-Smith's worst game as a Gator.)

The final possession was the worst part.

Napier dribbles around beyond the arc, gets trapped, escapes — maybe via a double-dribble — and gets a long, ugly two that rims out. But because all five Florida players desperately go for the rebound, Napier isn't blocked out, and when it caroms to him, he had a wide open 17-footer that he drains for the game-winner.

There's plenty to love about that hustle for the rebound, and no doubt in my mind that Wilbekin, if healthy enough to be on the floor, would have kept his body on Napier after the first shot, but it's that panicked moment — when "We need this board!" blotted out "We need to defend!" — that cost Florida that game.

That possession was also the last time I've seen Florida truly panic this season.

These Gators could not afford to be crushed by that loss, not with Kansas up next.

But they weren't. If anything, they were steeled by it.

Instead of reeling, they went out and blitzed the Jayhawks into oblivion before Andrew Wiggins threw on a cape and made that game "close" at the end. They played very well against Memphis in another close game one week after the Kansas game. They didn't let another game come down to the final minutes until their game at Arkansas, where they executed brilliantly down the stretch.

They did the same late brilliance thing at Auburn, and at Alabama, and against Missouri, and at Tennessee, and at Kentucky, and against Auburn (it's easy to forget Michael Frazier's game-tying three, I know), and at Mississippi, and at Vanderbilt (well, sort of), and against Kentucky, and in all three games of the SEC Tournament.

Since one night when Florida gave those who want to think in terms of "chokes" a fair bit of ammo, Florida has given those who want to believe that a team can be "clutch" ten times as much.

And those who have been paying really close attention know that it's partly because of that night. Florida's final defensive possession against Kentucky on Sunday in the SEC Tournament final was the same exact situation as the one it faced against UConn: One-point lead, enough time for one or two shots, an elite guard (Andrew Harrison) on the ball, and ready to penetrate.

Harrison penetrated, but Wilbekin, healthy for this moment, kept him from getting anywhere near the rim, and James Young slipped while taking a Harrison handoff, losing the ball; Wilbekin dove to try to grab the ball or tie it up, and time expired, and Florida had won.

Florida's players got asked about that moment, about what was going through their minds, after the game.

Wilbekin's response: "We just said 'Box your man out, so they don't hurt us on the second shot.' Just 'Don't run to the rim, like we did at UConn.'"

Patric Young's: "Ditto that. It's exactly, word for word, what we said."

Asked if he had anything to add, Michael Frazier II just laughed and said "Nah."

Whether that's entirely true or not, I don't know — there's something in Pat saying "Word for word" and Frazier's laugh that makes me think the actual phrasing might have been a little more PG-13 — but the point is that Florida was able to learn lessons from a mistake and a loss and apply them down the road.

Last year's Gators made many of the same mistakes, but it just kept making them over and over again. This team? Not so much.

It's made almost every mistake an elite team can make, and the four seniors in its starting lineup have made more than that over their four years. All that experience has forged a squad that virtually never makes the same mistake twice, and it learned how not to let heart and hustle fail for lack of an equal measure of brains on a cold Connecticut night in December.

Thanks for that, Shabazz.