Wilbekin led by deed and word

The tears began flowing a few seconds before the clock struck zero at the FedEx Forum in Memphis Saturday evening. Patric Young couldn’t hold back the emotions. The ghosts of three straight disappointing season ending losses in the Elite Eight game were put to rest and it was time to replace all that pent up frustration with the joy of taking the next step on a journey toward greatness.

Florida’s 62-52 win over Dayton’s Cinderella Flyers in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament South Region wasn’t without its moments when it seemed the old ghosts were coming back to haunt and create havoc, but somehow the Gators survived going 1-12 from the field in the last nine minutes to earn their way to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas next week.

In the chaos that was the game’s final nine minutes, Florida kept grabbing offensive rebounds and getting second and third shots, but the ball wouldn’t go in the hole. Defensively, feet that had moved so well to shut the Flyers down while building a 17-point lead, were suddenly stuck in concrete.

Down at the other end, once the Flyers had trimmed the Florida lead down to a manageable eight points, there were open shots to be had against Florida’s usually impenetrable defense, but that basket suddenly had a lid on it, too. The Flyers had point blank shots and open threes that just wouldn’t drop.

If you believe in the supernatural, then perhaps this was those old ghosts from Florida’s collapses against Butler in 2011 and Louisville in 2012 wreaking a little bit of havoc before going back to their graves. When Dayton couldn’t put the ball in the basket, the Flyers had to foul and Scottie Wilbekin hit 4-6 from the line in the final minute to provide the Gators with their double-digit winning margin.

For the first 13 minutes of the game, it certainly seemed like the ghosts were in the building. Dayton, a #11 seed and the only non-BCS school remaining in the tournament, put together an 11-2 run for a 21-19 lead with 7:05 remaining in the half. The Flyers were loading up, firing and finding the bottom of the net from 3-point range.

Florida was missing shots, turning the ball over and fouling way too much but that’s when Scottie Wilbekin’s alter ego showed up. Wilbekin is one of the most caring, thoughtful and sweet-natured kids you will ever want to meet.

That is, unless there is a basketball game to be won.

Once Smith put the Flyers ahead, Wilbekin assumed his identity as a cold-blooded assassin. Over the final 6:44 of the first half, Wilbekin proceeded to plunge one stiletto after another into the hearts of the Flyers, none more painful than that 25-foot 3-pointer as the horn sounded to end the first half, sending the Gators into the locker with a 38-24 lead.

During that final stretch of the half, Wilbekin scored 11 of Florida’s 19 points and for good measure made the pass in transition to Michael Frazier II, then provided the perfect screen for the Gator sharpshooter who drained a 3-ball from just right of the key.

That 19-3 run to end the half didn’t drain all the blood out of the Flyers, but it was enough of a wound that they never recovered. The Flyers scored the first six points of the second half in the first minute, pouring in a couple of 3-balls from the corner but all that did was set the Gators off on another run. Florida’s lead ballooned to 53-36 with 11:25 to go on a Patric Young layup after a nifty pass from Will Yeguete and it seemed the Flyers were up against the ropes, punch drunk and ready for their wobbly knees to give way.

That’s when the ghosts of falling short three straight years at the Elite Eight reared their ugly heads for one last try to disrupt a Florida championship run. The Gators scored only nine points the rest of the way, six from the foul line, but Wilbekin did what Wilbekin always does in tight situations. He lit up the Flyers with a 3-ball with 6:02 to go, the only shot the Gators hit from the field in the last 11 minutes of the game. As important as that 3-ball was, it wasn’t the most significant contribution for the senior point guard.

With the score 58-50 and less than four minutes remaining in the game, the Gators started firing up shots that wouldn’t go, grabbing offensive rebounds and then repeating the process. For nearly one minute, Florida controlled the ball, grabbed four offensive rebounds, launched five shots and scrambled all over the floor as if totally out of control. If ever there was a moment when the Gators looked like they were ready to be campers and fold their tents, then this was it.

But Scottie Wilbekin wouldn’t let it happen. After a Casey Prather offensive rebound, the ball went back to Wilbekin who stood near midcourt screaming at the top of his lungs, “Calm down!”

That was not a plea of desperation. Those were orders.

Orders to the Gators to regain their focus, get their eyes on the prize and play like champions. Orders to the ghosts that were trying to resurrect another collapse that they might as well slink back to their graves and stay forever, because this was going to finish differently than any of the past three years.

This was as defining a moment as there has been in this season that has seen Florida (36-2) reel off 30 consecutive wins. That Wilbekin, who has been Florida’s closer in the clutch all season and has been flipping on the switch to turn games around with his offense and defense, could bark out orders and have this team’s blood pressure drop 30 points tells you something about both Wilbekin and this team. This is a mature team that has envisioned moments like this but even mature teams get disjointed sometimes and that’s when a leader has to emerge. Some leaders do it by their actions. Wilbekin has done that a bunch of times but this was different.

This time Wilbekin did it with his words. By simply screaming “Calm down!” to his teammates, he changed the entire complexion of the game. The Gators were on the verge of a collapse and then Wilbekin spoke the word and the collapse was a thing of the past.

In that moment we saw Florida’s maximum supreme leader on the floor, offering up living proof why coaches sometimes give second, third and fourth chances to troubled souls.

If you want to know where Florida’s march to the Final Four began, look back to the summer when Billy Donovan flat out told Wilbekin to transfer out before offering a life rope to do list that a lesser kid would have refused. Wilbekin told Donovan he would do whatever was necessary to be a Gator and that included accepting a 5-game suspension to start the season.

The moment that Scottie Wilbekin decided to accept Donovan’s way rather than the highway, he elected to become a man and Florida’s run to the Final Four began. That’s why the ghosts didn’t win Saturday night in Memphis. In those last three trips to the Elite Eight, there wasn’t a Scottie Wilbekin capable of barking out orders to calm his team and get them focused. There wasn’t a maximum supreme leader capable of leading his team through the most difficult moments.

This couldn’t have happened last year or the year before or the year before that. But it happened this year because a not-yet 21-year-old man took charge just when the Gators needed it the most.

The son of a basketball coach turned pastor, Wilbekin probably relates more today than ever before to the words of the Apostle Paul, who said (I Corinthians 13:11), “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I thought as a child and I reasoned as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things.”

Saturday, the kid who put childish things behind him and became a man way back last summer, scared the ghosts away and punched Florida’s ticket to the Final Four.

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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.