MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Scottie Wilbekin was in the lane and in trouble.
All 6-foot-10 of UCLA forward Travis Wear was stretched out in front of him, unyielding. At 6-2, this was not an advantageous position to be in. So the Florida point guard looked for someone to pass to, but found no one.
Less than three minutes remained, with the Gators holding a slippery five-point lead. The shot clock was dwindling. Wilbekin was out of options, so he jumped and aimed a prayer over Wear.
"I was just trying to get a shot up on the backboard and at least give the bigs a chance to rebound," Wilbekin admitted.
"I initially thought it had no chance of going in," coach Billy Donovan said.
It went in. Somehow. Caressed off the glass, caught some rim but dropped. Florida would go on to beat the Bruins 79-68, thanks largely to a senior guard who scored eight vital points down the stretch.
There was a key 3-pointer. Then there was a driving basket, plus the foul and free throw. And then there was the prayer over Wear.
"Scottie McBuckets," said center Patric Young.
If we're doling out nicknames for the guy, I'm going with Mariano Rivera. Scottie Wilbekin has become Florida's closer.
He wants the ball at the end of the game, and over the course of his career he's gotten progressively better at making winning plays with it. The guy who threw a foolhardy alley-oop out of bounds in the final minutes of a meltdown, come-from-ahead loss at Kentucky last year was the guy who played great late in Rupp this year. The guy who was 4 for 17 and committed six turnovers in two South Region games a year ago was King Clutch against UCLA, despite not playing terribly well until it absolutely, positively mattered.
"I like it," Wilbekin said of late-game, close-game scenarios. "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."
Excelling under pressure is a big reason why Florida's second-leading scorer was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year. On a team with an abundance of balance and plenty of options, Wilbekin separates himself with the quality of his plays more than the quantity.
But it hasn't all been Hero Ball plays from Wilbekin to win games. There are plenty of occasions where he's simply made the right team play, not just the spectacular individual play.
"Certain guys, for whatever reason, feel comfortable in those situations," Donovan said. "I think he's one of those guys. 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. … I think Scottie's done a pretty good job making decisions."
One of Wilbekin's conscious decisions is accepting freshman point guard Kasey Hill as an on-court sidekick. Late against UCLA, Donovan played both his point guards together – but Wilbekin was the one off the ball, letting Hill direct traffic. Hill was sensational, dishing out 10 assists, and Wilbekin was the closer. They formed a seamless backcourt.
That's part of the nurturing mentality Wilbekin and fellow seniors Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete have adopted with their younger teammates to make Florida better.
"Scottie has been tremendous for Kasey's development," Donovan said. "…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.'
"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. 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."
Florida is as unselfish and cohesive as any team in the tournament, which is perhaps the biggest reason why the Gators have won 29 straight games and are still playing. They have maximized their talent.
But for three years running, that talent has tapped out in the regional final. The senior quartet has never made a Final Four.
The Gators will be heavily favored over Cinderella Dayton Saturday – Ken Pomeroy gives them an 84 percent chance of winning and predicts a nine-point victory margin. But after heartbreaking losses to Michigan, Louisville and Butler, don't expect this group to take anything for granted.
"They're a good team," Wilbekin said. "Everybody is at this point in the season. So we got to be locked in and ready because it's going to be a battle."
In the heat of the battle, expect the basketball version of Mariano Rivera to play the biggest individual role in deciding who wins.
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