You could feel the air in Florida’s balloon doing a slow leak Saturday afternoon at the 10:21 mark when Scottie Wilbekin picked up his second foul in the lane while defending James Young. As he walked to the bench to take a seat beside Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey, the decibel level in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center dropped two or three levels. Barring something drastic, Florida fans knew Wilbekin was done for the half. How could the Gators compensate for his absence? Wilbekin means so much to this team. He’s the chief ball handler, the quarterback at both ends of the floor who gets the Gators in the right alignment, the best perimeter defender in the country, the guy who takes – and makes – the tough shots and the unprecedented leader of the nation’s #1-ranked team.
Wilbekin’s replacement was Kasey Hill, a blur going from one end of the court to the other with the ball in his hands, but not much of an offensive threat. In his previous five games, Hill scored all of 14 points and missed all six of his 3-point shots. For the season, Hill is hitting just 14.7% from the 3-point line.
Young hit both foul shots for Kentucky and less than a minute later the 6-6 freshman nailed a 3-ball from the wing and just like that, Florida’s nine-point lead had shrunk to four, 20-16, and Florida fans were fretting.
That’s when Hill grew up. For the last nine minutes of the first half, Kasey Hill was the McDonald’s All-American point guard that some preseason publications had predicted would make second team All-SEC.
He ran the team. He made the smart decisions. He made the sharp passes. He took James Young out of the game defensively.
Instead of wilting, the Gators thrived.
Hill didn’t take a shot in the first half and he didn’t have to take one to be Florida’s best offensive player. He scored four points, all of them from the foul line, but got the Gators 15 points with his passing. He found Casey Prather twice, made the perfect lob to Chris Walker on an alley-oop that was slammed through effortlessly. All three times that Michael Frazier escaped Kentucky’s over-zealous defense – once in transition – he was on the receiving end of the perfect pass from Hill.
Hill finished the half with six assists, but every bit as important, only one turnover.
Florida led Kentucky, 49-28, at the half. The last nine minutes might be the best Florida has played offensively all season.
This was the Kasey Hill Florida fans had been hoping for all season. He showed flashes but never played this well, this consistently, for this long.
“I thought it was Kasey Hill’s best game by far that he’s had here,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He was aggressive, he was physical, he was tough, he played with a motor, he played with energy.”
It wasn’t lost on Donovan that the Gators went from seven up to a 22-point lead before the Gators settled for a 49-28 lead at the half. It also wasn’t lost on Donovan that Wilbekin got a nice rest. Since he’s one of the tops in the Southeastern Conference in minutes played, it certainly didn’t hurt in the second half that Wilbekin was well rested.
“Scottie goes out with two fouls and I think we’re up by seven at that point,” Donovan said. “Kasey ran our team and it allowed me to keep Scottie on the bench without putting him in harm’s way of getting his third and I think that says a lot for Kasey running out team.”
In the second half, Hill hit a jump shot, hit two more free throws and added another assist – the pass to Wilbekin that turned into the final dagger of the night, a long 3-pointer that made it a 77-60 game with 2:31 remaining. Kentucky was done for sure at that point.
It is important to note that Donovan wasn’t afraid to leave Hill in the game alone. When he paired Hill with Wilbekin, the two were relentless with their pressure on the press.
This was Florida’s final regular season game which means it’s a one-and-done mode the rest of the way. The Gators open the SEC Tournament next Friday and to capture the tournament, they have to win three games in a row. A loss and their SEC Tournament is done. A few days after that, it’s the NCAA Tournament, and each game is sudden death. Win six and you’re national champs. Lose and the season is over.
At this point, the Gators are thought to be the team that has the fewest weaknesses and the best chance to hoist the crystal trophy in Dallas the first Monday night in April. If they’re going to win it all, Kasey Hill will have to be as dependable, consistent and dynamic as he was Saturday against Kentucky.
If Hill can deliver, then Florida’s chances to win a third national title since 2006 are greatly enhanced.