MEMPHIS, Tenn.– For the fourth time in their careers, the quartet of Florida’s seniors are elite. Florida defeated the UCLA Bruins 79-68 to advance past the Sweet 16, yet again. The task was steep on paper: a talented and long 6-foot-9 pseudo guard in Kyle Anderson, an NBA lottery projected athlete in Zack LaVine and two glass-cleaning twins to deal with in Travis and David Wear.
The game began disjointedly, loose balls, players falling to the floor. Far from the fluid up and down offensive game many expected to see, but UF guard Michael Frazier II got his team going during a 16-5 run from the 14:43 mark until the 9:18 mark in the first half. The Gators made four threes, three of which belonged to Florida’s sharpshooting sophomore, equaling his total in each of the first two games in Florida’s NCAA tournament run combined. By the time the game was over Frazier had broken Lee Humphrey’s record for most three pointers made in a single season. He’s always had the green light, with a shooter of his caliber a coach would be crazy not to give it, but head coach Billy Donovan did give him a little extra push before the game.
“Coach pulled me aside today in shootaround and just told me to shoot the ball with confidence,” Frazier said. “That’s all I tried to do tonight, take good ones and they were just able to fall tonight.”
He finished with a game-high 19, but as a team, after the brief flurry of points, the Gators went cold beyond arc. Four of UF’s next five missed shots were from the land of plenty and Florida wasn’t able to extend lead into double digits.
That was how it went for most of the game. The Gators would put together a nice series of possessions but the Bruins would never let things get out of hand, most of the game, especially in the first half, saw UF holding leads between five and nine points. In the second half the Gators saw a lead that was at one point 11 dwindle to only one, a good UCLA team refusing to go away.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Wilbekin said. “They’re capable of going on runs just like we are. I think there were runs by both teams in the game. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. So we just tried to stay the course, weather their runs and get good possessions every time.”
Late in the second half perhaps Wilbekin got tired of UCLA hanging around, maybe he was frustrated with his performance to that point (only five points scored). Maybe he was showing out for his parents, the first time he’s played a Sweet 16 game in front of them, or maybe he was trying to make his brother’s first NCAA tournament game in attendance worth his while. Whatever the reason Scottie Wilbekin decided with 6:19 remaining in the game that it was as good a time as any to take over, and that he did.
He hit a three-pointer, then the circus shot of all circus shots, a hook shot falling away with contact that Wilbekin claimed he was just trying to get on the backboard.
“Actually when he shot it, I initially thought it had no chance of going in,” Donovan said. “Then the way it kind of went up towards the backboard, it looked pretty soft and I thought it would have a chance.”
Then he nailed three free throws and capped off his more than four-minute offensive showcase with a jump shot, keeping UF’s lead at what felt like a comfortable margin, even if it was only seven points on the scoreboard. It was the cushion UF needed, and they’d expand the lead to the final margin of 11 by the time the game was over highlighted by two quarantined dunks by forward Casey Prather.
Now Florida returns to the juncture where they’ve had three seasons end –the Elite Eight. Senior Will Yeguete sat at his locker after the game, when asked if this was the year the Gators would get over the hump he gave a deep sigh.
“We’ll see,” he said. “I mean especially for the seniors, it’s been fun playing with those guys, and you know we grinded it out tonight.”
Saturday a familiar challenge lurks just 40 minutes away from the Final Four. To overcome it they’ll need more threes from Frazier, more hostile takeover from Wilbekin and a lot of grind from every player on the roster.