Dooley: Wilbekin transcends statistics in win over Kansas
Published: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 11:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 11:17 p.m.
His ESPN interview on the court was finished and Scottie Wilbekin headed for the locker room while smiling up at the Rowdy Reptiles.
It got really loud one more time.
As he jogged off the court, Wilbekin gave the students a couple of Gator chomps and then punched his fist in the air. The senior had delivered one of those games that stays with you for a long time, one that transcends statistics and highlights.
A week after you wondered if he’d play, he played better than anyone on the court, even better than the freshman sensation who scored 26 points.
“It felt good,” Wilbekin said.
It didn’t feel so good last week in Storrs, Conn., when he went down late in the game with an ankle sprain. But only a day later, he said, he realized it wasn’t that bad and Florida’s training staff went to work.
And there he was Tuesday putting up 18 points, dishing six assists and stealing four passes as Florida beat Kansas 67-61.
It was one of those steals coach Billy Donovan thought was one of the biggest plays in the game. Because despite giving up the kind of 21-0 run Kansas is used to allowing in football but never basketball, the young Jayhawks clawed back to make it a game.
But a huge steal by Wilbekin was a momentum-changer before the last few minutes of the game turned into a contest between Florida free throws and Andrew Wiggins’ 3-point grenades.
“He gets so competitive, he almost gets enraged,” Donovan said. “I was watching him and I knew he was really going to guard the ball.”
Tuesday night was a big win for Florida against a team that you’ll be hearing a lot from in March. But it was also what should happen when a team led by seniors plays at home against a team led by freshmen.
Florida was too much for the Jayhawks early, using defense to fuel the incredible run. With leading scorer Casey Prather in an offensive funk brought about by the length of Kansas and some early foul trouble, Florida needed Wilbekin to give the necessary lift both early and late.
“I’m not surprised,” said senior Patric Young. “I’ve seen the guy who can play like that. He eats, breathes and drinks basketball.”
Much of that eating, drinking and breathing took place in the training room over the last week, but by game time Wilbekin was not only ready to go, he looked like a player in perfect health.
“It was one of the funnest games I’ve played in,” Wilbekin said.
In retrospect, that 21-0 run in the first half could have been looked at as both a blessing and a curse, although Kansas coach Bill Self didn’t see the latter.
“They played great and we played awful,” he said of the first half.
But up by as many as 18, Florida didn’t look like the same team in the second half. Donovan said he wasn’t sure if it was complacency or fatigue. Runs like the one Florida slapped on Kansas can result in both.
Fortunately for the Gators, Wilbekin had something left, making an impossible layup while being fouled with 5:44 to go and then getting the aforementioned steal 37 seconds later.
And then Prather scored his first basket of the game on a tip and managed to make 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch in between Wiggins’ strikes.
So they celebrated once the horn finally sounded and everyone could breathe again. This was an emotional win for a team that has suffered two tough losses to two ranked teams in this young season.
And whatever it was that fueled Wilbekin — whether it was the feeling he owed this team after the early-season suspension or the fear of what looked like a serious ankle injury a week ago or the fact that it was Kansas or the poor game he played in Connecticut — whatever it was led to an inspired effort by Florida’s point guard.
“After (UConn), I knew he was eager to come out and play well,” Donovan said. “He was pretty focused. He always plays really hard.”
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.