ARLINGTON, Texas – Scottie Wilbekin would say in the locker room that the cramps didn’t hinder him so much as they surprised him.
”I haven’t been drinking soda or anything,” he said.
With red eyes and a broken voice, Wilbekin told reporters in the Florida locker room his health had not been a factor in his performance, which had been substandard in Florida’s 63-53 loss to UConn in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament Saturday in Arlington, Texas.
Whether he was being completely forthcoming or not, there was at least a little bit of honor in that. The Florida media who formed a half-circle around him were eager to offer him that excuse, but he didn’t take it. Wilbekin walks away from Florida sad, but accountable.
“I wish I could have played better,” he said, “but the season’s over now.”
Wilbekin shot 2 for 9 with four points, one assist and three turnovers in 34 minutes. It was easily his worst performance in a month, and just the seventh time all season he failed to reach double figures.
All season, he had been the head, and UConn cut it off.
“If we could disturb and get Scottie Wilbekin as uncomfortable as we can,” Huskies guard Ryan Boatright said, “we would have a nice chance to win the game.”
So that’s how the whole shebang got resolved. UConn’s strategy hardly qualified as inventive. “Cut off the head (and the body will die),” is a basketball cliché, shorthand for the idea that if you can coax a bad game out of your opponent’s point guard, you have basically won the game. At UConn, they have another name for it.
“That was the Ace of Spades in this game,” Kevin Ollie said. “We wanted to take him out.”
The Ace got trumped with 6:55 left and Florida down by five. A dumpy possession meant Wilbekin had the ball at the top of the key, trying to beat Shabazz Napier with a series of crossovers. But Napier snatched Wilbekin’s dribble and found Boatright for a layup and a seven-point lead.
That would turn out to be the last aggressive play of Wilbekin’s collegiate career. He put up a desperation 3-pointer with 53 seconds left, but spent the next few minutes seemingly with Napier in his head.
Then it happened again. With 2:50 left, Napier ripped him for another steal that turned into a DeAndre Daniels jumper that put UConn up 10.
The other Ace of Spades was Huskies guard Shabazz Napier, and Florida was just as bent on stopping him as UConn was on stopping Wilbekin. The Gators often double-teamed Napier, who entered the game averaging 23.3 points in the tournament.
The strategy — let’s make someone else beat us — also was not exactly an original creation by Billy Donovan, but it worked to the extent that Napier only took six shots, scoring 12 points. Trouble for Florida was, Daniels had 20 points and 10 rebounds, Niels Giffey went 4 for 7, Boatright went 5 for 9 and UConn shot 56 percent from the field.
Florida got a lot out of Casey Prather and Patric Young, who combined for 34 points on 13-for-23 shooting. Young, in particular, gave UConn hell on the block late. He scored 12 of his 19 points over the final 11 minutes. But if Florida was going to win, he was going to need the ball a few more times, and the Gators couldn’t get it to him.
Florida had 11 turnovers and just three assists.
“I thought we had a hard time handling their pressure up top,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Back in the locker room, Wilbekin looked at the floor. It’s not that it was all his fault, just that on this day, for those two hours, the other team had vowed to take him out.
And the Huskies had.
”I’m not really thinking about my personal performance that much,” he said. “I’m just thinking about these guys and how it’s our last time playing together.”