MEMPHIS — He had always been the closer when his team needed one, so as Scottie Wilbekin found himself alone on the wing with nothing but a poor shooting night in his memory, he surveyed the scene and decided to rise up. As the basketball tumbled through the FedEx Forum air, Wilbekin leaned back on one foot and kept his shooting wrist flicked, posing for the dramatics.
When Florida’s point guard and team leader contorted himself for an impossible layup on the next possession, the building came alive and, once again, his team marched on. A 79-68 victory over No. 4 UCLA on Thursday night sent Florida into a region final for the fourth straight season, where only Dayton stands between the Gators (35-2) and another Final Four.
It was the fourth time in the past nine seasons that Florida ended UCLA’s season in the NCAA tournament and the seventh straight Sweet 16 win for Coach Billy Donovan, who is now one of two NCAA coaches to reach four consecutive Elite Eights since 1980 (the other being Duke Mike Krzyzewski from 1988 to 1992).
Wilbekin, who began the game shooting 2 for 12 from the field, finished with 13 points, one of four Gators who scored in double figures. As the postgame celebration began, the senior marched straight to the front of the handshake line, leading the Gators again like he did all night. Jordan Adams paced the Bruins with 17 points, while Kyle Anderson, the 6-feet-9 point guard they call “Slow-Mo” and a one-time Gators recruit, added 11 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
With Anderson limited early by two fouls, Florida took a 36-30 lead at halftime, in exactly the slugfest many expected, with 11 assists on 13 baskets. Freshman Chris Walker, suspended for the much of the season by the NCAA after receiving illegal benefits, was blossoming into the mammoth contributor everyone expected the McDonald’s all-American to be, while center Patric Young was his usual battering-ram self and Michael Frazier had drained three three-pointers by intermission.
The story line entering the game was the something’s-got-to-give meeting between the immovable Florida defense, ranked second nationally in efficiency, against the electric UCLA offense, which entered scoring 81.5 points per game. The Bruins (28-9), Pacific-12 tournament champions under first-year Coach Steve Alford, had blitzed past two double-digit seeds in the opening weekend – No. 13 Tulsa and No. 12 Stephen F. Austin – but here stood their toughest test yet, the top-ranked team in the entire field, winner of 28 straight dating back to Dec. 2, 2012.
It was a heavyweight act following the appetizer, when No. 11 Dayton overwhelmed No. 10 Stanford in a half-empty FedEx Forum. But Florida’s fans, chief among them alumnus quarterback Tim Tebow and – surprise! – Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson, stuffed the two sections behind their team’s bench, rollicking as Frazier continued to find open looks and sink them.
During warmups before the second half, a pack of Dayton fans, lingering to learn who their team would play in the South Region final, watched Frazier swish three-pointer after three-pointer. When he finally missed, and it took some time for that to happen, the crowd offered a collectively aw-shucks sigh. Once the second-half began, Frazier (game-high 19 points on five threes) caught fire again as Florida stretched its lead.
Four quick fouls for both Young and Prather allowed the Bruins to inch back into contention, and when Normal Powell dropped in a layup, UCLA had climbed within one point, 56-55. Yet as midnight came and went on the East Coast, Wilbekin woke up. His three-pointer put Florida up eight points and his and-one layup increased it to 11. By then it was over, the Gators moving on after their closer had finally arrived.
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