ATLANTA — In his first game since being named SEC Player of the Year, Scottie Wilbekin showed everyone why.
Wilbekin’s importance to the Gators was on clear display in each half of Florida’s 72-49 victory over Missouri on Friday in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.
If not for Wilbekin’s perfection from 3-point range in the first half — Wilbekin made all three of his long-distance shots before halftime — the Gators would not have been tied 29-29 with the Tigers at the break.
And when the No. 1-ranked Gators pulled away in the second half, Wilbekin served as the spark.
"He is our leader. He doesn’t take a play off," teammate Will Yeguete said. "He’s a point guard, so he understands that he has to lead us the whole game for 40 minutes, or whatever time he’s on the court."
Two plays Wilbekin made Friday deserve recognition on the Gators’ season-highlight package.
The first came shortly after Yeguete’s layup on a nifty pass from Kasey Hill gave Florida a 40-36 lead with 10:04 left in the game.
As Missouri’s Keanau Post tried to inbound the ball to teammate Jabari Brown following Yeguete’s score, Wilbekin raced in and stole the ball, saved it to Yeguete before falling out of bounds, and then darted to the left corner in front of Florida’s bench.
Yeguete threw the ball back and Wilbekin launched a 3-pointer that went swish. Florida’s reserves jumped from their chairs as Wilbekin ran by the bench. The Gators’ lead was up to seven (43-36) after Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson’s layup had trimmed it to 38-36 only moments earlier.
Wilbekin saw an opportunity to make a play when Post had trouble finding an open man.
"The referee’s count was counting down, so I knew that Brown was going to try and make a break for the ball," Wilbekin said. "I was able to get there before him and save it to Will."
Wilbekin’s 3 was the second basket of a 12-0 Gators run that turned a two-point lead into a 14-point advantage (50-36) in a three-minute span. The final basket during the run — another Wilbekin 3 — came after the senior leapt to the ground and gained possession in a tie-up with Brown.
A fired up Wilbekin slapped his chest and pumped his fist as he walked toward the bench for a timeout. When play resumed, Wilbekin nailed a 3-pointer that served as the dagger to Missouri’s upset bid.
"When it’s a close game and tight like that, they’re big blows," Brown said of Wilbekin’s 3s.
"That’s just Scottie," Hill said. "He’s a warrior. He competes all the time. He makes plays. He plays hard. That [steal] lifted us up a lot and everybody else wanted to play a lot harder after that happened."
Wilbekin became only the second Florida player to earn SEC Player of the Year honors — Chandler Parsons in 2011 is the other — when he won the award Tuesday. In the Gators’ 24th consecutive win Friday, Wilbekin scored 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, had four steals, two assists, and didn’t commit a turnover in 30 minutes.
"I thought Scottie came out and really competed and played hard and played a pretty decent first half," Gators coach Billy Donovan said.
Wilbekin’s first half bled over into the second and possibly spoiled Missouri’s chance at an NCAA Tournament bid.
Listen to a pair of Wilbekin’s teammates talk about him.
"His position is so important," fellow senior Patric Young said. "It really anchored our team today. The guy just really has a passion for basketball. He probably dreamed about the shots he’s making now. It’s really cool to be a part of this, his journey right now."
Dorian Finney-Smith, who chipped in with 10 points and nine rebounds off the bench, raved over Wilbekin’s effort.
"Scottie — oh my god. He plays with so much passion and energy," Finney-Smith said. "It would be so hard not to play for a leader who plays like that. He leads by example, knows how to say inspiring words, but when a point guard goes out and plays that hard — and makes some of the plays he makes … I mean, who’s not going to play for a guy like that?"