ATLANTA (AP) Missouri was in position to pull off a defining victory, the kind of triumph that would surely win over the NCAA selection commission.
Just like that, No. 1 Florida snatched it away.
Now, the Tigers can only hope they’ve done enough to play on in the tournament that really matters.
Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II scored 15 points apiece, and Florida dominated down the stretch for a 72-49 rout of Missouri in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday, giving the Gators their 24th consecutive victory and likely erasing any question about whether they’ll be a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
The Tigers (22-11), on the other hand, face a couple of anxious days before the 68-team field is announced Sunday evening.
After starting the season 12-1 and claiming a spot in the Top 25, Missouri went 9-9 in SEC play and split its two games at the Georgia Dome, needing double-overtime to get by Texas A&M in the second round.
”We’ll see,” said Jabari Brown, who led the Tigers with 18 points.
Jordan Clarkson with 11 was the only other Missouri player in double figures. The Tigers shot just 36 percent (16 of 44) from the field, including a dismal 1-of-13 performance beyond the 3-point arc – which looked even worse next to Florida’s 12-of-21 shooting from the outside.
Also, the Gators’ swarming defense forced 14 turnovers, leading to 19 points. Missouri managed just six points off Florida’s nine turnovers.
”We were just grinding it,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. ”They made shots, got it going a little bit. Hats off to them.”
The final score was hardly indicative of how it went most of the game. Missouri sprinted to the locker room on a high – tied at 29 after Ryan Rosburg’s buzzer-beating dunk – and the Tigers were still down by only two approaching the midway point of the second half.
”I was disappointed in our first half,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. ”I thought we looked a little it out of it and didn’t play as well as we’d hoped to.”
But any thoughts of a major upset against the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC during the regular season quickly faded away.
Wilbekin made sure of that.
After Will Yeguete laid one in off a nifty pass from Kasey Hill, Florida pressed the inbounds pass, Wilbekin came up with a steal, then got free in the corner for a 3-pointer. Missouri missed at the other end, Patric Young connected on a short hook and just like that, the Gators had stretched their advantage to 45-36.
It only got worse from there for the Tigers.
During a wild scramble on the floor after Keanau Post lost control, Wilbekin yanked the ball away from a Missouri player and smartly called a timeout to ensure the Gators kept possession. Then, coming out of the break, he knocked down another trey to put the Gators ahead 50-36, capping a 12-0 run.
Wilbekin finished 5 of 6 beyond the arc and Frazier was 5 of 7. Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in with 10 points, but this was the usual team effort by the Gators (30-2).
Eight Florida players scored at least four points. Hill had five assists. Finney-Smith grabbed nine rebounds.
As the closing seconds ticked off the clock, Donovan was able to clear his bench- even sending in his son.
”It’s hard to get 30 wins,” the coach said.
The Gators outscored Missouri 34-13 over the final 10:06, making their last five 3-pointers as they advanced to Saturday’s semifinals.
”They play in tandem with each other well,” Brown said. ”They always know where their teammates are going to be at. They’re a disciplined team.”
In some ways, this game mirrored Florida’s 68-58 victory over the Tigers in early February. The teams went back-and-forth in that contest, but Frazier knocked down a trio of 3-pointers in a two-minute span, giving the Gators some breathing room.
More of the same in the rematch.
”They made a couple in transition,” Haith said. ”They move the ball so well. They really share the ball.”
With Florida, everything plays off their effort at the defensive end.
”It starts with getting stops,” Wilbekin said. ”Because if we score and they score, it won’t be a run.”
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