Billy Donovan has keen understanding of Scottie Wilbekin’s disappointment
ARLINGTON, Texas — The length of time between then and now seemed much longer than reality as the Gators walked off the court here Saturday night.
A week ago in Memphis, Scottie Wilbekin was named Most Outstanding Player of the South Region. He cut down a net. He raised a trophy above his head. Wilbekin was the star that led Florida to wins over UCLA and Dayton and a berth in the Final Four.
He did it in spectacular fashion: 36 points and no turnovers in the two games.
A week later at AT&T Stadium, Wilbekin untucked his jersey and quietly exited the court as Connecticut celebrated a 63-53 win over the Gators and a berth in Monday’s championship game.
Soon after he reached the locker room, Gators coach Billy Donovan made a point to seek out Wilbekin.
He knew. He had his own story of disappointment to share.
"I went through the same thing in the Final Four he just went through," Donovan said. "When I was playing, so much of our team’s offense was based on the ball in my hands and making plays. I remember my senior year playing against Sherman Douglas. I really struggled to do that."
Donovan managed only eight points in a Final Four loss to Syracuse and Douglas in the Final Four 27 years ago. Wilbekin scored four Saturday on 2-for-9 shooting. Wilbekin was 0 for 3 from 3-point range, committed three turnovers and had only one assist.
As a team, the Gators committed 11 turnovers and managed only three assists against the Huskies and their guard tandem of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.
"That’s crazy," Wilbekin said when told the disparity. "That’s not what we usually do. We weren’t taking care of the ball."
The highlight of Wilbekin’s night came in the first half when he made a driving off-balance shot that gave Florida a 16-4 lead 10 minutes, 12 seconds into the game.
The Gators were playing lock-down defense and Napier had yet to score when Wilbekin’s bank shot dropped through the net.
It was the beginning of the end.
UConn went on an 11-0 run and by halftime owned a 25-22 lead. Meanwhile, Napier and Boatright made Florida’s guard trio of Wilbekin, Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier II seemingly dissappear.
"I thought the difference in the game was our backcourt guys could not get into the lane at the rate Boatright and Napier could," Donovan said. "When you see three assists, that a direct reflection of your guards."
Hill finished 2-for-6 from the floor and finished with four turnovers and no assists. Meanwhile, Frazier’s only points came 13 seconds into the game when his 3-pointer gave Florida the early lead. He took only two more shots — both 3s — the rest of the game.
"We weren’t able to execute on offense," Frazier said. "That’s the biggest thing. It was tough."
Hill, his eyes still moist as he sat in a quiet Gators locker room, echoed what the others said.
"We weren’t flowing on offense like we normally do," Hill said. "They got a lot of turnovers between me and Scottie. I think they are by far the best two guards we played all year as far as leadership and experience. They’re real scrappy. They’ve been in the program. The team goes and they go."
While Wilbekin, Hill and Frazier combined for just 14 points, Boatright (13) and Napier (12) combined for 25 points, nine assists and five steals.
The Gators closed to within 43-40 late in the second half, but the Huskies were not going to be denied. UConn will face Kentucky for the national title Monday night.
"They were really disruptive," Wilbekin said. "We were disjointed on offense and got into late-clock situations and had to force shots up. It was one of our worst offensive execution games of the season."
Wilbekin refused to blame cramping issues that took him out of the game briefly to start the second half. The same thing happened in the win over Dayton seven days ago and Wilbekin finished with 23 points.
Instead, he gave the credit to Boatright and Napier for outplaying the Gators’ backcourt.
"It was tough trying to come back," Wilbekin said. "We kept trying to chip away but we could never get over the hump. I didn’t get any rhythm 3s. Frazier got one.
"It’s really hard, knowing that we are never going to play as a group again. It’s sad. I hate to see it end like this, but I know looking back I’m going to cherish this season for a long time."
That is partly why Donovan made sure to say something to Wilbekin immediately after the game.
He knows the feeling. He also knows that if not for Wilbekin, the Gators would have not been a game away from playing for a national title.
"You just never want to see a senior do all the things that he’s done … you just wish he could have played and performed better for us," Donovan said. "But if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be sitting up here right now."