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Friday March 28, 2014Elite Again: Big Shots, Big Defense Send Gators Past UCLA

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Scottie Wilbekin’s expectations were not particularly high. Not at the moment. Not given the circumstances.

Florida’s 6-foot-2 senior point guard was probing for something/anything late in the shot clock with his team clinging to a five-point lead against a rallying UCLA squad that had scored eight of the game’s last 10 points. Wilbekin had driven deep into the defense and found himself locked up with 6-10 forward Travis Wear in the low post.


“I was just trying to get a shot up on the backboard,” Wilbekin said. “At least give our bigs a chance to rebound.”

No need. The shot was placed high on the glass and caromed through the basket for a three-possession lead with just over two and a half minutes to go. From there, top-ranked, top-seeded UF distanced itself from 20th-ranked, fourth-seeded UCLA and finished off a 79-68 victory in the NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals at the FedEx Forum that put the Gators in very familiar territory.

Elite Eight, here they come.


“It was a team effort,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “Some different guys stepped up and helped us win.”

Sophomore guard Michael Frazier made his NCAA shooting slump short lived, burying five 3-pointers on his way to a game-high 19 points. Wilbekin scored 10 of his 13 points in the second half and UF’s bench, led by point guard Kasey Hill’s career-high 10 assists and six rebounds, helped rescue its foul-plagued starting unit with 23 points in reserve. 

The Gators (35-2), winners of 29 in a row, advanced to the South Region championship game Saturday where they’ll face 11th-seeded tournament darling Dayton (26-10) at 6:09 p.m., with the winner heading to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas next week. For UF and its incomparable senior class -- which won for a school-record 118th time Thursday -- the date with the Flyers will provide an opportunity to erase painful memories of Elite Eight losses in each of the last three seasons.

“We have another chance,” senior forward Casey Prather said. “So we’re grateful for that.”

Their Sweet 16 game game was billed as offense vs. defense, with UCLA’s explosive, high-scoring bunch from the Pac-12 taking on Florida’s 40-minute, in-your-face tenacity that dominated the Southeastern Conference.

The latter won out.

The Bruins (28-9) came into the game averaging 81.5 points per game (12th-best in the nation) and 17.2 assists (fifth-best), but became yet another opponent -- the 34th in 37 games -- that failed to score 70 points against the Gators. UCLA was held to 42.2 percent shooting, went a woeful 3-for-18 from 3-point range (16.7 percent), carded just 12 assists and never found rhythm against UF’s pressure, be it in the half or full court.

“We didn’t have a good shooting game from the perimeter,” Bruins 6-9 sophomore point guard Kyle Anderson said after scoring 11 points grabbing nine rebounds and dishing five assists (with only his rebounds meeting his per-game average). “Those things happen. It just seemed to happen at the wrong time.”

The Gators, of course, were a factor in that.

Credit the Bruins, though, for twice putting big (and scary) dents in 11-point UF leads in the second-half.

"I told the team today that it was going to be a game of run," said Florida assistant coach Matt McCall, who was charged with scouting the Bruins. "It's how you respond to those runs -- and we responded."

Anderson scored back-to-back baskets that helped draw UCLA within 56-55 with just under 10 minutes left. That was when sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10 points, 6 rebounds), part of Florida’s posse off the bench, hit a much-needed baseline jumper that kicked in a 10-0 Gators run, with the last six coming from a 3-point shot from Wilbekin, followed by an old-fashion 3-point play.

That's what McCall meant by "responding."

No surprise Wilbekin, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, had a hand in it. 

“ ‘Scottie McBuckets,’ if you want to call him that,” said senior center Patric Young, who was limited to just four points and three rebounds in 20 minutes due to foul trouble. “He’s our go-to guy.” 

Two field goals each from Jordan Adams (17 points) and Travis Wear (14 points) were sandwiched around a couple Finney-Smith free throws and made it a five-point game, 68-63, inside of three minutes to go.

“We believe in ourselves and we believe in our principles defensively,” said senior forward Will Yeguete, who had eight points and seven rebounds. “We knew it was going to come down to stops.”

First, the UF offense had to stop the bleeding.

That's when Wilbekin’s acrobatic shot over Wear allowed the Gators a late mini-cushion they really needed.

“I don’t know how it went in, I’m just glad it went in,” said Prather, another foul-troubled starter who finished 12 points in 19 minutes. “It was one of those, ‘No! No! No! ... Great shot!’ plays.”

Much like the ones Wilbekin threw in last weekend during sensational down-the-wire offensive play against Pittsburgh. Wilbekin again was huge against the Bruins, but just as big was Frazier’s deadly shooting eye to start the game.

After making just three of his first 13 long-range shots in the tournament’s opening weekend, Frazier nailed five of his first six to get the Gators off a brisk start against an opponent they knew could score points in bunches if the game turned into a transition fest.

Frazier said a chat he had with Coach Billy Donovan at the team’s walk-through practice earlier in the day settled him. The message?

“He told me to shoot it with confidence,” Frazier said.

Getting Frazier’s stroke back, at least for a day, and pairing it with sensational contributions from Hill and backup center Chris Walker (7 points, 3 rebounds, 1 blocked shot in 6 minutes) figure to provide a lift for a team looking to snap its Elite Eight drought against Dayton.

But there are no givens, even for a team that hasn’t lost since Dec. 2, in the madness of March.

After the game, Donovan told his players in the locker room to enjoy the win, but reminded them that Friday’s work -- off to practice in the morning, mid-afternoon media -- would begin early.

Enjoy it while getting their rest.

“Personally, I don’t feel like there’s anything to enjoy right now,” Frazier said. “We’re trying to keep advancing and you can’t take a breath because every team now is a good team.”

Present company accepted.


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