ATLANTA – The difference between winning the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament and losing came down to three things – something the Gators do every day in practice, a certain amount of luck and the memory of a scolding at the hands of senior teammates. It’s not a coincidence that when Andrew Harrison tried to hand the ball off to James Young in the fleeting seconds Sunday, the Gators executed a defensive switch perfectly. That’s what comes with practice. The element of luck was when Young tried to turn the corner and take the ball to the rim, he slipped and the ball squirted loose. The memory of a scolding prompted Scottie Wilbekin to dive and beat Harrison to the loose ball as the clock struck 0:00 at the Georgia Dome, preserving a 61-60 win for #1-ranked Florida (32-2), giving the Gators the SEC Tournament championship to go with their regular season title while extending their winning streak to 26 games.
There were 14 seconds left in the game when Kentucky came out of a time out, ready to take the ball to the rack for a game-winning shot. The strategy was fairly simple. Young is Kentucky’s best free throw shooter so he would get the ball. If the Gators fouled, the Wildcats had their guy at the line with two shots and a chance to win the game. If the Gators didn’t execute the defensive switch perfectly, he would be able to turn the corner with a clear path to the basket with a chance to either put up a shot or drop off a pass to 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein for a game-ending dunk.
That was the strategy, but Florida had strategy of its own. Wilbekin and Michael Frazier knew the Wildcats were going to drive the ball. That was the focus of Florida’s huddle while Kentucky devised its strategy at the other end of the floor.
“They’re an aggressive, driving team,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “That’s what I thought they would do is try to drive it, get it on the glass, try to offensive rebound or get a foul.”
Harrison had the ball at the top of the key, guarded by Wilbekin. With 5.2 seconds to go in the game, Harrison dribbled between his legs and then went to the right wing where Young, a lefty, took the ball and tried to get into the lane where Wilbekin was there to impede his progress.
“Scottie and Frazier, their switch at the end was something we work on every day in practice,” Patric Young said.
Under pressure, James Young slipped on the floor as he made the cut. The ball squirted harmlessly away.
Wilbekin saw the ball and didn’t hesitate. He dived to the floor ahead of Harrison and knocked the ball away as the clock struck 0:00, ending the game and any hope Kentucky had of finishing off what had been a very impressive comeback from 15 points down.
“The last time we played Kentucky at our place, there was a loose play that I didn’t dive on it and Will (Yeguete) and Casey (Prather) yelled at me for not diving on the ball,” said Wilbekin, the SEC Tournament MVP. “I felt bad. I thought about that and there was no way I wasn’t going to dive on the ball this game.”
That Wilbekin and Frazier were so well versed in making the switch that they executed it perfectly was the result of hours and hours of monotonous practice. That James Young slipped?
Well, there is such a thing as luck.
“There is a level of luck that comes into a lot of these situations,” Donovan said. “It just does. We lost to UConn on a freak play at the end of a game [back on December 2]. The ball bounced the wrong way. We lost to Gonzaga [in the 1999 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 game] on a freak play. We beat NC State a couple of years ago on a freak play. The ball bounced to (Chandler) Parsons and he threw it from 75 feet and it went in.”
There is also a level of living in the moment.
Prior to the play that ended the game, the Gators had two chances to seal victory at the foul line. On a day when they needed an exorcist to call out the free throw demons – the Gators were 7-17 for the game –Scottie Wilbekin, who has been clutch at the line in the last two minutes all season, threw up a brick with 23 seconds remaining on the front end of a one-and-one and the Gators leading, 61-60.
Wilbekin was bailed out by Dorian Finney-Smith, who outjumped Cauley-Stein and 6-9 Julius Randle for the rebound. Fouled immediately, he, too, went to the line with a one-and-one and just like Wilbekin, he missed. Only this time there was no bailout. Andrew Harrison rebounded for Kentucky and the Big Blue Nation that made up about 90% of the crowd of 20,330 rose to its feet, anticipating a championship.
It might have happened except the Gators were living in the moment.
“Where you could have come out of that time out that Kentucky called with 14 seconds – Dorian Finney-Smith hanging his head; Wilbekin hanging his head; ‘I missed free throws, can’t believe it’ and now they’re not even thinking about the next possession,” Donovan said. “They’re worried about what happened at the free throw line. They did that in their careers. That was a problem for them and they’ve gotten better through those experiences. That’s where I think we have gotten better is we’re a better focused team moving past runs, adversity, mistakes, challenges, things not going our way.”
Things went Florida’s way for nearly 30 minutes. The Gators rode the hot hand of Frazier in the early going to get off to a 12-8 lead. Frazier knocked down three 3-pointers and hit a pull-up shot in the lane to score 11 of Florida’s first 12 points.
From that point, Wilbekin took over, hitting three more 3-pointers as the Gators commanded a 40-30 lead at the half. It should have been worse. The Gators fouled too much and gave Kentucky free throws (10-14 in the first half). When Kentucky fouled, the Gators struggled to convert (6-13 from the line).
It should have been a 15-point margin at the intermission.
The lead ballooned to 15 in the first nine minutes of the second half. When Finney-Smith fed Young with a perfect bounce pass from the high post down low, Young finished with a two-handed power jam that gave the Gators a 54-39 lead with 11:03 to go. This had the look of last Saturday’s game in Gainesville when the Gators sapped the life out of Kentucky in the second half.
They might have done it again except they got sloppy. They missed shots they should have made. They fouled too much. They let the offense get out of synch. They missed defensive assignments that opened the Wildcats up for three critical 3-pointers.
“We had some empty possessions,” Donovan said. “We had some turnovers that got them out on the break. Then our free throw shooting was terrible and we put them to the free throw line way too much. That’s why the game was so close. I think if we could have done a better job from the free throw line and not fouled as much, being up whatever it was – 14 or 16, not saying we would have won by that much – but we could have kept some space and some distance. We were never able to do that.”
Kentucky scored 14 straight points and had a chance to tie with 6:16 left but Cauley-Stein missed the second of two free throws. Down at the other end, Frazier broke the drought with a 3-ball from the right corner.
That seemed to revitalize the Gators. Wilbekin drove the lane, found an opening and finished with a layup with 5:05 left and Florida was ahead by a more comfortable six points but Kentucky got free throws and a run-out by Andrew Harrison after a Florida turnover to bring it back to 59-57.
Florida’s final points – what proved to be the winning basket – came from Patric Young on a perfect feed from Wilbekin with 1:55 to go but on the other end, James Young drilled a 3-ball from the wing with 1:28 to go, cutting the margin back to one, 61-60.
In the gut check that was the final minute of the game, Florida played exceptional defense and Finney-Smith came down with two critical rebounds, one on a missed shot by Andrew Harrison with 27.2 seconds to go and the other after the Wilbekin miss at the line.
There was also a ridiculous call by the officials when Harrison ran full speed into Wilbekin with no intention of making a play on the ball. The officials gave it a one-and-one when a flagrant that would have given the Gators two shots and the ball would have been the appropriate call.
But as luck would have it, it didn’t really matter. This was Florida’s day and no matter how many misplays the Gators made, no matter how many times they fouled Kentucky and no matter how many shots they missed, Florida was going to squeeze out a win and a championship.
Florida will move on to the South Regional of the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Orlando when they face the winner of Tuesday night’s play-in game between Albany and St. Mary’s. Win and the Gators will face the winner of Colorado-Pittsburgh in the second round. Kentucky will go to the Midwest Regional as a #8 seed where the Wildcats will face Kansas State. Win and Kentucky likely plays Wichita State in the second round.
GAME NOTES: Patric Young was named to the All-SEC Tournament team along with Frazier. Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison made it from Kentucky along with Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes … Florida held Kentucky to 3-11 the 3-point line. In three SEC Tournament games, opponents shot 6-37 from the 3-point line against the Gators … Young and Frazier each scored 14 points to lead the Gators in scoring while Prather and Wilbekin each scored 11. Andrew Harrison led Kentucky with 16 and played all 40 minutes … The Gators held Kentucky to 18-51 shooting from the field (35.3%). The Wildcats were bailed out at the foul line where they were 21-26 … The Gators outrebounded the Wildcats, 38-36, with Yeguete pulling down seven and Finney-Smith six. Prather, Young and Frazier each had five … Florida outscored Kentucky in the paint, 22-18, and from the 3-point line, 24-9. The Gators were 8-19 from the 3-point line and 23-53 overall (43.4%).