Scottie Wilbekin right on time in Florida's Sweet 16 win over UCLA
MEMPHIS -- Scottie Wilbekin spent most of Thursday night in traffic, bottled up, misfiring, contained. The UCLA defense that stood in front of him looked like a forest, with guards the size of forwards, their long arms so extended they sometimes resembled wings.
With Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, relegated from focal point to subplot, the Bruins kept it close. Every time Florida pulled ahead, every time it threatened to pull away, UCLA countered.
That is how most of Thursday's regional semifinal unfolded, until Operation Limit Wilbekin came to an abrupt end. With Florida clinging to a five-point lead, Wilbekin knocked down a three-pointer over the son of his opponent's coach. On the next offensive possession, he drove the right side of the lane, scored, drew a foul and made the ensuing free throw. A five-point lead had ballooned to 11.
Florida would hold on to win 79-68, advancing to the final of the South Region of this NCAA tournament, where it will be heavily favored on Saturday against Dayton. With Tim Tebow in a luxury suite and coach Billy Donovan stalking up and down the sideline, the Gators did little to damage their status among the favorites in this tournament. If anything, they bolstered it.
For that, they could thank Wilbekin. Again. His final line -- 13 points, 3 assists, 1 rebound, no turnovers -- failed to accurately state his impact, his knack for finding the exact right moment to take the exact right shot or make the exact right play. If basketball is ultimately a sport of timing, Wilbekin is a luxurious timepiece, a college hoops Hublot.
His task Thursday was unusual: defend Kyle Anderson, a 6-foot-9 point guard known as Slow-Mo who averages closer to a triple double than any player in the country, who likes to post up smaller opponents and who, in a soap operatic twist, almost chose Florida over UCLA.
Slow-Mo did as Slow-Mo does on Thursday. He drove to the basket as if in slow motion. He rumbled ... into ... the ... lane. He shook off early foul trouble and helped frustrate Wilbekin -- at least until the stretch that sealed Florida's latest victory.
"It was huge," Anderson said afterward atop the stage, his eyes vacant, his season done. "That's what you expect out of your senior point guard."
Thus continued the Gators' remarkable run, their win streak now 29 games and counting. Florida has not lost since Dec. 2. Florida won every game it played in conference, won every game it played in the SEC tournament, won the conference title and conference tournament title and now stands three more wins from winning the whole thing.
Yet this was Donovan's account earlier this week of Florida's first practice: Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith suspended, others wracked by injuries or on the mend. "Our team was in in complete shambles and disarray," he said.
Now Florida is back in the Elite Eight for the fourth straight year, after it knocked UCLA out of this tournament for the fourth time since 2006.
As the Gators took questions afterward, it was easier to find a salad among the barbecue joints in Memphis than a smile atop the postgame stage. Wilbekin sat up there. So did Donovan. So did Michael Frazier II, whose 19 points on mostly long-range shooting powered Florida and forced UCLA out of its zone in the first half.
Someone asked if he could enjoy all this. "Personally, I don't feel like there's anything to enjoy," he said. "We can enjoy what we've done after the season."
Speaking of patterns, though, Wilbekin further solidified his status as Florida's key to clutch. Reporters pressed him to explain this afterward. He said he wanted to stay aggressive, wanted to attack, wanted to remain cognizant of the moment and be ready when it called. He said he never gets nervous. He could not explain it all that well. So many key moments resulted from not thinking about them, from following instinct and remaining in control.
His teammates and coaches were left to give a more developed explanation. One assistant, Rashon Burno, said in the locker room that Wilbekin gained confidence from shot he hit at Arkansas in January to send the game into overtime.
"It's expected of Scottie to come out and make good plays," Burno said. "Our style of play keeps the ball in his hands. His ability to make big shots is uncanny right now."
This was supposed to be the Year of the Freshman in college basketball. Again. There was Andrew Wiggins at Kansas and Jabari Parker at Duke and Tyler Ennis at Syracuse and Kentucky's latest stacked class.
Instead, this has become the year of Florida, the year of Wilbekin -- a senior, it should be noted, a senior who admits he needed to grow up. But there remains a next step for the Gators, a tricky one into the Final Four, a step that has eluded Florida in each of the past three seasons.
Chances are, if Dayton keeps it close, Wilbekin will factor into the final outcome. He will have to. After the suspension and the rocky start, after his return and the win streak that followed, this has become for Florida a season of timing and routine.