The number four sure has relevance in Gator basketball these days.
Four times, UCLA has squared off against the Florida Gators- and lost.
Four straight years, the Gators have faced tough Sweet 16 competition, and pulled away from their opponents (BYU, Marquette, Florida Gulf Coast and now UCLA) late to win.
And thus, in each of the four seniors’ (Patric Young, Casey Prather, Will Yeguette and Scottie Wilbekin) four years, the Florida Gators have reached the Elite Eight.
That’s where the number four ends, because next in line on that list would be, well, the fact that Florida has yet to actually win one of those Elite Eight games. This group of seniors has a chance to end that tomorrow night against Dayton- and they get that chance because of the latest, and perhaps most, gutsy performance by one of their seniors, Scottie Wilbekin.
Wilbekin was simply unstoppable against the Bruins. So much was made of the height problem the taller Kyle Anderson (who just minutes ago announced his intentions to head to the NBA) would pose against Wilbekin. Yet it was Scottie who appeared to benefit from the matchup, slashing through for two amazing, gravity defying layups that finished the Bruins off, very reminiscent of the why not shot Erving Walker hit three years ago to mark the beginning of the end for UCLA on that day. (If you want to take a little walk down memory lane, it’s at the 5:25 mark of this video). Florida won that game in large part because of him, and Wilbekin essentially repeated history, ensuring the Bruins would fall to 0-4 against the Gators.
But Wilbekin wasn’t the only hero.
There were four Gators who scored in double figures (Prather, Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith were the other three. In fact, Wilbekin never really got going until late, meaning Kasey Hill did most of the dirty work at the 1 position (and did so well, in fact, that I’m convinced the point guard position is in good hands after Wilbekin graduates).
Michael Frazier had perhaps the biggest impact of all early in the game. Frazier shot the lights out in the first half, going 5-6 from three point range, and breaking Lee Humphrey’s school record for made threes in a season in the process, which was 113. Without him, Florida surely would have been trailing at halftime.
The Gators would have also been in big trouble if not for the sudden emergence of Chris Walker, who scored five points in the final three minutes of the half on two truly special plays. First, Walker spun around and lofted a sky-ball (so that’s why they call him that) that kissed the glass and dropped. A minute later, he was fouled. He hit the first free throw, and missed the second. But UCLA forgot to box him out, and he rocketed straight down the lane and corrected himself by grabbing his own miss and laying it right back in.
So Florida led 36-30 at halftime, and appeared to blow the game wide open in the opening moments of the second half. Highlighted by back to back threes by Frazier, the Gators opened up a 50-39 lead with under 16 minutes left. UCLA countered with the efforts of Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson, who helped cut the lead to 56-55 with just under 10 minutes to go.
Then the Gators proceeded to do what they’ve done so well all season- they salted the game away in the final minutes.
First, Florida calmly responded to UCLA’s 16-6 run with a 10-0 run of their own, which included a Dorian Finney-Smith jumper, yet another three by Frazier, and a three from Wilbekin. By the time UCLA realized what had hit them, they were right back where they started- down 11, and this time, with just a shade over five minutes remaining. Then UCLA had to play catch-up, and the Bruins couldn’t win the game of catch-up because Wilbekin’s aforementioned shots came after draining much of the shot clock, and thus the game clock.
All of this is despite two of Florida’s biggest assets, Young and Prather, sitting out a great deal of the game due to foul trouble, which is quite rare for a Gator team. Without their most established big guys on the floor, it would not have been a stretch to think UCLA’s bigger roster would run away with the game, or at least hold a lead at points in the second half. But it didn’t happen because as always, Florida found a hero and rode him late, and that’s pretty much where the story ends for UCLA. Sorry, Bruins fans.
But really, I’m not too sorry. Not after this. I suppose that for most Gator fans, a win, combined with this, would be a sufficient response, but that’s just not me:
UCLA- care to try your luck again? #ItsGreatUF pic.twitter.com/qzpjLzx4ks
— InAllKindsOfWeather.com (@AllKindsWeather) March 28, 2014
Anyway, next up for the Gators are the 11th seeded Dayton Flyers, a so-so team from the A-10 that’s been hotter than fire lately (although they did get swept in three games by St. Joe’s). But they’ve beaten Ohio State, Syracuse and now Stanford to reach the Elite Eight.
Before I even get into how badly Florida’s seniors want a trip to the Final Four, though, I will pause to point out that history is not on Dayton’s side as a Cinderella team. Yes, the Gators did lose to 8th seeded Butler three years ago. But Florida has won 10 straight NCAA Tournament games against double digit seeds, and have stopped several Cinderella runs, including George Mason, Norfolk State and Florida Gulf Coast.
Then there’s the x’s and o’s matchup, which has to favor Florida. Dayton’s not a bad team by any means, and I’ll even go as far as saying that Jordan Silbert could cause Scottie Wilbekin a bit of trouble. But top to bottom- and I won’t say this very often- the talent nod easily goes to Florida. Now throw in the desperation, and the hustle and grit that’s powered the Gators past more naturally talented teams, and what you’ve got is the perfect recipe for a Florida victory, and the first ever trip to the Final Four for this group of fantastic seniors.