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SEC Tournament MVP Scottie Wilbekin scored 11 points Sunday, but his defensive stop at the end was the difference.

Sunday March 16, 2014Gators Get Stop They Had to Have

SEC Tournament MVP Scottie Wilbekin scored 11 points Sunday, but his defensive stop at the end was the difference.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

ATLANTA -- The Gators couldn't hit a free throw. They couldn't hit a shot of any kind for almost five minutes of the second half. And their lock-down defense suddenly sprung a leak.

Still, they were good enough to beat Kentucky in a nail-biting 61-60 win Sunday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game.

The end came so fast that it was difficult to comprehend exactly what had happened as the Gators mobbed one another on the court to celebrate the program's first SEC Tournament title since the days of Joakim Noah and Co.

Both teams were guaranteed a spot in the Big Dance prior to tip-off, but it was March Madness intensity at its best, a perfect sendoff for the Georgia Dome -- the current version at least -- as host of the SEC Tournament.

"What a game,'' Wildcats coach John Calipari said to open his postgame press conference. "If you were watching that game, you had to get excited about college basketball."

The Florida fans among the announced crowd of 21,921 certainly agreed.

The Gators capped a perfect run through the conference unlike any other. Already the regular-season SEC champions, already the first team in conference history to finish 18-0, the Gators finished off the Wildcats Sunday to go 21-0 against the rest of the league.

How did they do it Sunday? The same way they have done it all season: D-E-F-E-N-S-E.

Florida limited the Wildcats to 35.3 shooting (18 of 51), outrebounded them 38-36, and pulled off nine steals.

But on Sunday, Florida's defense literally won the game in the final moments.

The Gators led by one after Dorian Finney-Smith missed a free throw -- Florida hit just 7 of 17 Sunday -- and Calipari called a timeout with 14 seconds left.

The Wildcats were either going to pull off a dramatic come-from-behind win on the final possession, or the Gators were going to hold on by the skin of their teeth.

The final sequence started with the ball in the hands of Wildcats freshman Aaron Harrison, whose game-high 16 points helped trim a 16-point second-half deficit to a single digit. However, Harrison couldn't escape Gators stopper Scottie Wilbekin's shadow and dished the ball to teammate James Young.

Young made a move into the lane, slipped, and the ball squirted back in the direction of Harrison and Wilbekin. Both players dove on the ground for the loose ball as the clock expired.

Game over.

A couple of minutes later Wilbekin was at center court talking about the win and this unforgettable season.

"It’s been a lot of fun,'' said Wilbekin, named SEC Tournament MVP. "This is the best team I’ve ever played on. Every game is a joy. It’s a joy to play D like we do."

The frantic finish will go down as one of the most memorable finishes in Florida basketball history.

It wasn't the prettiest ending for the Gators, but they'll take it.

"There is a level of luck that comes into a lot of these situations," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "There just is."

Good teams make their own luck and the Gators have done that all season, whether it was Wilbekin's buzzer-beater at Arkansas to force overtime or the narrow escape against Auburn at the O'Connell Center.

Wilbekin was determined to be in the right spot at the right time in Sunday's closing seconds.

"I switched on to Harrison, and I just wanted to play the best defense I could without fouling and putting him to the line,'' he said. "He handed it off to Young, and [Michael] Frazier did a good job of staying with him and he fell. So that was that."

Frazier, known more for his offense -- Frazier scored 11 of Florida's first 12 points Sunday -- said the winning stop was a team effort.

Playing as a team is how the Gators have won a school-record 26 consecutive games and earned the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

 "We did a great job of communicating,'' Frazier said. "He played good defense and then I was just able to stay with him and he fell."

Added Wilbekin: "Last time we played Kentucky at our place there was a loose ball that I didn't dive on and Will [Yeguete] and Casey [Prather] yelled at me for not diving on the ball and I felt bad.

"So I thought about that, and there was no way I wasn't going to dive on it this game."

The Gators are glad he did.

In the end, it didn't matter that the Wildcats went on a 14-0 run in the second half, or that Wilbekin, like Finney-Smith, missed a crucial free throw in the final minute.

The defense delivered. It usually does.

 

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