Scottie Wilbekin comes up clutch to lead Florida to Final Four
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — For a brief second, it looked as if Scottie Wilbekin was going to fire another 3-pointer after Dorian Finney-Smith grabbed an offensive rebound off Michael Frazier II’s missed 3-pointer in the final minute of the first half.
But Wilbekin, Florida’s floor leader and Mr. Clutch, took a quick glance at the clock. He realized the Gators could play for the final shot nursing an 11-point lead against Dayton here in Saturday night’s South Region final.
Gators coach Billy Donovan yelled instructions from the far end of the court.
"I had a play on that I was trying to bring somebody to him to set a high pick-and-roll,” Donovan said. "It’s kind of a little different action that we run that’s kind of a slip screen and it opens up the floor a bit."
Wilbekin had a different idea in Florida’s 62-52 victory over the Flyers that propelled the Gators to their first Final Four since 2007.
"I think he liked the matchup, and he said, ‘Coach, can we go flat?’ We put four along the baseline and move guys underneath the basket and offensive rebound. I trust Scottie enough to put him in those situations."
Wilbekin didn’t need any offensive rebounders.
With the clock winding down, he launched a 3-pointer that dropped through the net, and then raced from the court with the Gators leading by 14 at halftime.
Momentum boost with a capital M.
"Man, that shot was unreal,” teammate DeVon Walker said after the Gators’ 30th consecutive win. "We feed off it. It excites us. It hypes us up even more to get ready to go into the second half. It sustains our confidence, too."
The shot was reminiscent of Wilbekin’s buzzer-beater at the end of the first half in Florida’s victory over Pittsburgh a week earlier. He missed a last-second shot to end the first half against UCLA, but with the way Wilbekin is playing of late, there is no one the Gators would rather have the ball than Wilbekin.
Wilbekin tied his career high with 23 points Saturday and played his usual lock-down defense against Dayton guard and leading scorer Jordan Sibert, who finished with exactly 23 points less than Wilbekin.
Wilbekin did it all for the Gators during their stay in Memphis, scoring 36 points in wins over UCLA and Dayton without committing a turnover. The only other time Wilbekin had back-to-back games without a turnover this season was in road wins at Tennessee and Kentucky last month that launched the Gators on their way to No. 1 in the polls.
Wilbekin was named the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player.
"I’m happy about the award, but it’s nothing compared to winning,” he said. "Throughout the season each game playing has just gotten more fun and more fun. I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my life right now. I love spending these games and this time with my teammates."
His teammates love it, too.
"He’s one of the best guards in the country,” senior forward Will Yeguete said. "He’s led us the whole way. It was a team effort, but Scottie really, really put us in a good position to win this game. I hope everyone learns just how good he is."
If those around the country didn’t know much about Wilbekin before the postseason started, they do now. In seven postseason games, Wilbekin has scored 107 points, dished 21 assists, recorded 16 steals and committed only seven turnovers.
He has played turnover-free basketball in three of those games and committed only a single turnover in two others.
The senior guard was at his best during a 19-3 Gators run to end the first half.
Wilbekin scored 11 points during the run that broke open a close game and kept Dayton at a safe distance the rest of the way.
"We made some uncharacteristic turnovers and they were knocking down some tough shots,” Dayton center Matt Kavanaugh said. "Scottie Wilbekin was really shooting well in that stretch."
Wilbekin capped his outstanding performance by making 4 of 6 free throws in the final 1:05 after Dayton trimmed a 17-point second-half deficit to eight with 3:55 remaining.
The SEC Player of the Year and SEC Tournament MVP has been locked in like never before, on and off the court. He battled some cramping issues early in the second half that required a brief stint on the bench with ice bags on his legs.
When the final buzzer sounded, Wilbekin was asked what he was thinking as he shook hands with the Dayton players and the reality of a Final Four berth after three consecutive losses in the Elite Eight.
"I can’t really remember exactly, but I’m going to go with happy,” he said.
Wilbekin’s teammates are staring to run out of adjectives to describe Wilbekin’s recent clutch play.
"I don’t think there is a word to describe Scottie,” Walker said. "Scottie should have his own word. He’s a leader. He’s the heart and soul of this team. He always came up with big plays when we needed them. And he’s in everybody’s ear. The value he has to this team is crazy."
In a joyous Florida locker room after the game, teammate Casey Prather probably put it best. Prather arrived on campus with Wilbekin, Yeguete and Patric Young in the summer of 2010 and has been along for the entire ride of Wilbekin’s up-and-down career.
It’s been all ups of late.
"We are just proud of him,” Prather said, "and happy he is on our team."