ORLANDO– On Thursday, he was quiet. 4-9 from the field, 1-4 from three point range. It was a calculated effort by second round opponent Albany to take Florida’s backcourt out of the game, especially from the perimeter. In the third round, he was loud. As loud as the thousands of orange and blue clad fans –who made the Amway Center seem like a satellite location of the O’Connell Center– were at multiple times during Florida’s 61-45 victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers.
Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin limped off of the podium after the post game press conference was done, an ice pack wrapped around his left leg after a 9-15 day shooting with 21 total points. The discomfort, he guessed, was a symptom of banging knees during a scrum for a loose ball and he said he’d be fine, just a bruise nothing major but simply a minor malady on an otherwise joyous and accomplished day.
To be completely honest, Wilbekin didn’t really start to impose his will offensively on the game until its final minutes but his 25-foot running three pointer as the halftime buzzer sounded did give a glimpse of things to come as much as it gave Florida a seven point cushion– all the team needed to take control of the game and coast to victory.
After he sunk the basket he was the first person into the locker room, sprinting back clapping his hands, assured that the shot would be counted for three points before the officials even reviewed it.
“That’s the look that I hoped for in that situation,” Wilbekin said. “I don’t really shoot too many runner threes but it went in, and I was pretty happy about it.”
The game wasn’t exactly in the balance coming down the stretch, and Wilbekin made sure it stayed that way. He made six of UF’s last eight field goals over the final 8:24 and scored 13 of its last 17 points. His 21 on Saturday were the second most he’d had in any game all season and his hostile takeover of the game was much like his performance in the late stages of games against conference opponents Arkansas and Kentucky.
He wasn’t the only Gator that stepped up to the occasion either; senior Will Yeguete had arguably the best game of the season. This is his first NCAA tournament as a major contributor at full health –or at least close to it as you can be in March after the grind of a full season. He was sidelined in his sophomore season by injury and was still coming back from arthroscopic knee surgery in his junior year. Like much of what Yeguete does it wasn’t prominent in the box score, eight points, four rebounds, ho-hum to the casual onlooker. But it’s in the unquantifiable that Yeguete shines, hustle and tenacity that makes him vital to the team.
“I was just trying to be aggressive defensively,” he said. “I knew they were going to be a really good team. On offense I was just trying to make plays and help my teammates and I was able to shoot the ball sometimes and able to make plays, and that’s really what I wanted to do today because I knew they were going to be a really good team from the get-go and had to be ready to go.”
To their credit, all of Florida’s players seemed ready from the moment the ball went up at 12:15. They were active and engaged on defense and equally so on the offensive end. They were challenged by head coach Billy Donovan to come out with their best effort, after not doing so in the second round matchup against Albany.
“As a coach you always want to play to your identity and who you’ve been and who we’ve been the entire year,” Donovan said. “I didn’t feel like we did that. We didn’t play to our identity [Thursday] and I was disappointed by that because we really hadn’t done that all year.”
The brief identity crisis is over for now, and once again Wilbekin and Yeguete (as well as Florida’s other two seniors) will head to the tournament’s second weekend –this time in Memphis, TN. to play in their fourth straight Sweet 16.
They hope to make a considerable amount of noise when they get there.