Gators got it going on Wilbekin’s defense

ATLANTA – Once the feeding frenzy began with 9:53 to go in the game, what had been a very ordinary Florida team to that point transformed into a school of piranhas that stripped all the meat off Missouri’s bones.

It began all too innocently. Kasey Hill drew the Mizzou defense as he glided through the air then dumped the ball off to Will Yeguete for an easy layup that gave the #1-ranked Gators (30-2) an queasy 4-point cushion. That was the first drop of blood on the water.

Then came the gaping wound.

Looking for an opening against Florida’s suddenly swarming press, Keanu Post’s inbounds pass was picked off by Scottie Wilbekin. Sensing he was about to go out of bounds, Wilbekin looked for and found Yeguete, doing what all good big men do, moving to open space while cutting the separation distance in half. The ball hardly touched Yeguete’s hands before it returned to the left corner where Wilbekin’s feet were set for a quick-release 3-ball that slithered through the nets to give the Gators a 43-36 lead.

The referees could have blown the whistle and ended it right there because the Gators were in full attack mode. It only got ugly the rest of the way as Florida turned what seemingly was headed for a white knuckles finish into a leave the carcass floating in the water, 72-49, win over Missouri (22-11) in the quarter-finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at the Georgia Dome.

“The referee’s count was just winding down,” Wilbekin explained. “I anticipated him (Wes Clark) going for the ball and I was able to make a jump on the ball. Luckily, Will saw I was trying to save it and ran to the open spot so I could pass it to him.”

Next came a defensive stop and a Patric Young runner in the lane. That was followed by a steal by Yeguete, a pass up the floor to Casey Prather and a foul that netted two points at the line by Prather to make it 47-36.

As if he needed a statement play on top of the steal-3-ball combo from the left corner, Wilbekin delivered again at the defensive end. Anticipating a pass to the right wing, Wilbekin got a hand on the ball but lost control to Clark. Before Clark could get a strong grasp on the loose ball, Wilbekin ripped it loose and beat everybody to the ball on the floor where he rolled to his back and called a time out with 7:13 remaining.

“I had read the pass and I felt I had gotten the steal but I mishandled it and he got it and so I didn’t want to give up that steal, so I wanted wrestle the ball away from him,” Wilbekin said.

The reward for effort was Wilbekin’s fifth 3-ball of the game with 7:01 remaining that made it an almost insurmountable 50-36 Florida advantage.

In a span of 2:52, Florida had gone on a 12-0 run that sapped every ounce of energy out of Missouri and left the Tigers helpless against the onslaught. As if a few exclamation points were needed, the Gators drilled three more 3-pointers, two by Michael Frazier and another by Dorian Finney-Smith, part of a 12-21 shooting night from beyond the arc.

There were no answers on the Missouri end, particularly from the 3-point line where the Tigers couldn’t find the ocean while standing on the end of the pier. The Tigers managed just 1-13 from the 3-point line, a 33-point discrepancy in a game they had to win. Barring a miracle of Moses parting the Red Sea proportions, the Tigers’ next game will be in the NIT while Florida goes on to a #1-seed in the South Region in the NCAA Tournament.

For 30 minutes, it was a yo-yo run for the Gators, who lacked the ability to sustain momentum. They had it going for about four minutes in the first half when they went on a 9-3 run to take a 25-19 lead but that burst was followed by a letdown that allowed the Tigers to finish the half on a 6-0 run that tied the score at 29-29 going into the locker room.

Billy Donovan was not a happy coach, particularly with the way his four senior leaders played. Although Wilbekin had a nice half offensively, scoring nine of his 15 points, Prather, Young and Yeguete were good for a collective six and were responsible for four turnovers in Florida’s first seven possessions.

“The thing that was disappointing to me in the first half was our seniors,” Donovan said. “I thought Scottie came out and really competed and played hard and played a pretty decent first half. I thought he got frustrated and tried to do too much.”

The other seniors were basically no shows.

“You look at Prather, Yeguete and Young’s line … in that first half, it was not very good,” Donovan said.
There was more consistency coming out of the locker room in the first three minutes of the second half when the Gators scored seven straight points, but they got lethargic again and Missouri crept back into it, closing the score to 38-36 when Jordan Clarkson drove for a layup with 11:57 to go.

Missouri managed only 13 points the rest of the way and scored only 20 points total in the second half.

It was a brilliant Florida defensive effort, but one that left Frazier feeling as if the Gators had let off the gas a little too early.

“We have a high expectation,” Frazier said. “They got a couple of easy buckets and free throws at the end of the game and we kind of shut it down. We can’t do that. We should have held them to 40 points, maybe 42. We kind of lost our focus there at the end of the game.”

Still, holding a team like Missouri with its many weapons to 49 points is an accomplishment but Frazier didn’t see it that way.

“We hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Frazier said. “We want to hold teams to 50 points or less every game, 40 points if we can.”

The win was the 24th straight for the Gators, who face Tennessee in Saturday’s semifinals. The Vols took care of business Friday afternoon with a grind it out 59-45 win over South Carolina, whose Cinderella run in the tournament ended after upsets the first two nights. 
Florida has already beaten the Vols (22-11) twice this season. A third straight win will require a far more consistent effort.

“We need to have a high intensity for 40 minutes,” Wilbekin said. “We only had it for 20 minutes.”

Moving forward, Wilbekin says the Gators can’t think they can simply turn on the heat and force teams into submission any time they step on the floor.

“We don’t have stupid confidence but we have confidence in ourselves,” Wilbekin said. “That’s something we talk about as a team. Don’t have stupid confidence. Don’t think that we’re just going to get it done automatically. We have confidence that if we play the right way – unlike we did in the first half but how we did in the second half – that we can win against any team if we stay humble and play the right way.”

GAME NOTES: Wilbekin and Frazier led the Gators with 15 each while Finney-Smith added 10 and had a game-high nine rebounds … Young and Prather each had nine points. Hill contributed seven off the bench and had a game-high five assists … Chris Walker scored four, his highest scoring total of the season … Jabari Brown led Missouri with 18 but 10 of his points came from the foul line. Brown, one of the more lethal 3-point shooters in the country, was held to 0-5 behind the arc.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.