The (1) Florida Gators (35-2) pulled away late in the second half to take down the (4) UCLA Bruins (28-9) with a 79-68 victory in the Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, TN. After the game, head coach Billy Donovan and some players met with the media to discuss the win.
SCOTTIE TOO HOTTIE
It would be unfair and inaccurate to say senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is the main reason the Gators won but there is no question that his late-game heroics shut the door on the Bruins and were a catalyst that sent Florida to its fourth Elite Eight in as many seasons.
Starting 2-for-10 from the field and 1-for-7 from beyond the arc, Wilbekin hit his last three shots (one three), scored six-straight points and somehow finished with 13 points, the second-most posted by a UF player on Thursday.
“I just tried to keep attacking, stay aggressive and take what they gave me,” he said. “My shots weren’t falling in the first half, even in the beginning of the second half. So, I just tried to stay the course and keep playing my game.”
Wilbekin’s three makes were not only clutch, each was impressive. First, despite being way off from downtown most of the night, he drained a pull-up three to push Florida ahead by eight. On the very next possession, he took the ball to the rack and was fouled on the way, converting an old-fashioned three-point play that gave the Gators a game-high 11-point lead.
“I like it,” said Wilbekin of having the ball in his hand in pressure situations. “Those are the times of the game where the game’s on the line. It’s the funnest to play in those type of games. But I mean we just try to work the ball around, and if it gets to a late clock situation, we try to hit some pick and roll action or some way where I can try to get in the lane or create for myself or somebody else. So, it’s fun. It’s definitely fun being in games like this.”
He continued: “I know my teammates have confidence in me. If I’m going to take the shot, I have to have confidence in myself to take a good shot and take a good rep and have confidence that I can make the shot. If I’m going to take it, then I have to be confident. But it’s just big moments in the game, it’s just fun. And if I’m the one taking the shots, then I’m the one taking the shots, but it could easily be anybody else.”
UCLA quickly cut into Florida’s lead with an 8-2 run that brought its deficit down to five with 3:12 to play. This time, Wilbekin’s strike was not as deliberate. He had to work for it.
Driving into the lane but quickly finding nowhere to go with the ball, Wilbekin picked up his dribble and was stuck with his pivot foot as his only remaining weapon. Three pivots and a glance off the top of the backboard later and the ball found the bottom of the net.
“I was just trying to get a shot up on the backboard and at least give the bigs a chance to rebound,” he explained with a smile, but it ended up going in.”
Donovan remains proud of Wilbekin’s consistent development but took exceptional enjoyment from witnessing his late-game heroics on Thursday.
“I think certain guys, just for whatever reason, feel comfortable in those situations. I think he’s one of those guys,” he said.
“There are certain guys that they, ego wise, want to take the last shot, and they don’t take the right shot. They may not understand what’s available. Scottie’s done a pretty good job this year not only of making some shots, but he’s also found some people where he’s gotten some open looks for some guys as well. So, coming down the stretch, it’s not always making the shot because there’s times where you can drive in there, and you can sit there and say, ego wise, ‘I want to be the guy.’ And you’ve got a guy like Michael Frazier or somebody that’s wide open and you’ve got to give it to him, you’ve got to make that play, too. I think Scottie’s done a pretty good job of making decisions when he’s gotten in there.”
For as well as Wilbekin, senior forward Will Yeguete (eight points, seven rebounds) and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II (leading scorer, see below) played on Thursday, it was their bench won the game for UF.
Redshirt sophomore F Dorian Finney-Smith once again played starter’s minutes (30) and managed to post 10 points (despite his inconsistent shooting) with six boards, tied for second-most on the team. Where Finney-Smith really made a difference, however, was at the foul line (3-for-4) and with his ball-handling (four assists).
But it was a pair of freshmen in PG Kasey Hill and power forward Chris Walker whose court time was invaluable for the Gators.
Hill only scored six points but posted a career-high 10 assists along with six boards. The youngster only turned the ball over twice and committed just one foul despite playing 28 minutes and handling the ball for a large portion of the contest.
“He played great tonight. It was fun to watch him out there,” said Wilbekin of his successor. “He did a great job getting in the lane and finishing himself or finding bigs to dump the ball off to. It’s great to see him and his development. He’s always been able to do that. He does it in practice all the time. It’s great to see him translating that to the game.”
Donovan was also quite pleased with Hill’s effort but made sure to credit Wilbekin, who he called “tremendous for Kasey’s development” throughout the season.
“It takes a pretty mature player to say, ‘I’m going to slide off the ball. I’m going to give the ball to a freshman.’ And Scottie’s been great for Kasey, and I think you could even hear him say today that he was really happy for him,” Donovan explained.
“Scottie’s invested a lot of time with Kasey, just trying to help him. Scottie’s fine. He wants to win. He’s going to do what we need to win. He’s going to play any role he’s got to play. But he could easily say to me, ‘Move Kasey to the two, put the ball in my hands, I’m a senior.’ But he never does that. And he knows for our team to be better those two guys playing together was going to be important.”
No matter how well Hill played, Walker’s contributions should not be glossed over. Though he only played six minutes – surprising considering he was as productive as he’s ever been on the court in a Florida uniform – Walker scored a career-high seven points on 3-of-5 shooting with three offensive boards and a thunderous block. He gave tremendous effort throughout the contest but did once again show that he has a lot to learn on the defensive end.
“I thought Chris really gave us good, quality minutes,” Donovan said. “He actually did a pretty good job in there. He was active. He blocked the shot. He got a couple of offensive put backs. He did a real nice job. Kasey found him late. He’s getting better, and he’s growing. You know, it was really a game where I never felt Patric [Young] was ever in the flow of the game at all, and I thought Prather’s fouls probably hurt him a little bit. So Chris coming off the bench gave us good quality minutes. Although they weren’t a lot, I thought they were important minutes.”
Young racked up four fouls midway through the second half and played just 20 minutes. He was 2-for-4 with three rebounds and two turnovers.
ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
Frazier not only led Florida with a team-high 19 points, his five three-pointers (on just eight attempts) also set a new school record for most in a single season with 115. Former Gators G Lee Humphrey hit 113 triples in a season not once but twice, which makes Frazier’s accomplishment even more impressive.
Then consider the fact that entering Thursday’s game, Frazier had been just 4-for-15 from the field and 3-for-13 from beyond the arc in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
“Coach pulled me aside today in shoot around and just told me to shoot the ball with confidence. That’s all I tried to do tonight, take good ones, and they were just able to fall tonight,” he said.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Florida improved to 41-16 in 57 games over 19 NCAA Tournaments. The Gators have played 45 of those games under Donovan, going 34-11 in those contests during 15 tournaments.
» UF improved to 8-2 in Sweet 16 games all-time, 7-1 under Donovan with seven-straight victories that advanced the program to the Elite Eight (2000, 2006, 2007, 2011-14). Florida has not failed to advance to the Elite Eight from the Sweet 16 since 1999.
» The Gators are now 4-0 all-time against the Bruins with all four games played since 2006 in the NCAA Tournament. It is the fourth time in the last nine years that UF has eliminated UCLA from the postseason.
» Florida extended its program-record winning streak to 29 games with victories in 34 of its last 35 contests.
» The Gators are 8-0 in neutral-site games this season.
» Florida is now 25-5 all-time playing as the top team in the country.
» UF will face a double-digit seed after the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight year. Florida took on (15) Norfolk State in the 2012 Round of 32, (15) Florida Gulf Coast in the 2013 Sweet 16 and now (11) Dayton in the 2014 Elite Eight.
» UCLA PG Kyle Anderson on the play of UF and its point guards: “You’ve got to credit Florida. They took care of the ball in the second half. I think their point guard didn’t have a turnover the whole game. They played the majority of the second half with two point guards. So when you have two really good point guards out there, it’s pretty easy to take care of the ball. … [Wilbekin] was huge. I can remember two big shots down the stretch. That’s what you expect out of your senior point guard. He’s been here for four years, Sweet 16 for four years, so he made big shots. You know, credit to him.”