Wilbekin wills top-ranked Gators into Sweet 16
Published: Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 5:49 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 22, 2014 at 8:12 p.m.
ORLANDO — When the game ended, Scottie Wilbekin sat in a chair and took a slap to the palm from Will Yeguete. Not only was Wilbekin hobbled near the end of the game by what he called a bruised knee, he was dog tired.
“I was kind of tired,” he said.
No, he was exhausted.
“He was worn out,” Billy Donovan said.
He had chased Pitt's Lamar Patterson all over the court and held the sharp-shooting guard in check. He had pressed relentlessly. And then he had put his team on his back at the end of the game.
Sleep well, Scottie.
“He really gives it up on the defensive end,” Donovan said. “When you give it up like that and you're the point guard, there's a physical toll your body takes over a period of time.”
He was whipped. You could see it in his face when he limped out of the game after it was secured. He had given everything he had to give to get Florida into the next round.
Nobody heard Donovan louder than Scottie Wilbekin on Friday. This was his response.
Donovan had a long talk with his team after the lackluster win over Albany on Thursday. His theme was basic — play to your identity. Thursday's effort was an impostor.
Is this really the way you want to go out?
He listened. More importantly, he heard.
“Coach was really getting on to us and challenging us and just asking us if that was the team we wanted to be in these last couple of games,” Wilbekin said.
Naw, this was the real Wilbekin. The SEC player of the year. The rock from The Rock.
It wasn't just the 21 points he scored. It was how he scored them. In a game where every possession seemed crucial, Wilbekin's points all seemed to be huge.
The 3 that started it. The running 3 at the end of the half. And then, The Show.
It was a thing of beauty even if the senior had to contort his body in a way that made your back hurt.
“I had to twist my body a little bit,” he said. “But it went in.”
A lot of them went in. And during the one stretch with the Gators needing points to ice things, he went all Michael Jordan against the Panthers.
After Pitt scored five straight points to cut the Florida lead to eight points, Wilbekin went on a personal run to end any hopes for the Panthers. His first of eight straight points was a tough shot. His second was a ridiculous fallaway 12-footer. Then came another crazy shot and the contorted layup.
“That's probably the best I've seen him play,” Pitt guard Cameron Wright said.
Especially with what was on the line.
“I would say it just happened,” he said. “Our offense isn't really designed for one player to do something.”
But who else would you want with the ball in those situations?
The toughest player on Team Grind.
Oh, and by the way. He had only one turnover against a ridiculously good Pittsburgh defense.
“It's been one of the greatest experiences for me as a coach going through what he and I have gone through together,” Donovan said.
Remember, he told Wilbekin he needed to transfer when he suspended the senior for the second time.
“People get a chance to see him grow as a player, I got a chance to see him grow as a person,” Donovan said. “He needed to regain credibility inside the team. He had lost all his credibility. But he thrives on challenges.”
Saturday's win to send Wilbekin and the seniors to their fourth straight Sweet 16 was certainly not about one player even if it seemed like it. The Gators returned to their identity on defense and survived a ton of missed bunnies and 15 missed 3s. They owned the boards and showed Pitt what physical really means.
This crazy ride continues.
But it's tame in comparison to Wilbekin's ride from November to March.
“We didn't do a good job on him,” said Pitt coach Jamie Dixon. “But he has a lot to do with it. He's been doing a pretty good job all year long. There's probably a trend there.”
A trend that will never get tiresome.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.