Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin crossed midcourt, waved off teammates and began a stationary dribble as the final 20 seconds of the first half ticked down last week against Dayton.
Once everyone in the building knew what he was doing, Wilbekin did it. He pulled up from way beyond the arc — swish — then turned and jogged off the court, raising one finger high.
That statement shot said much about Wilbekin’s poise. The 3-pointer also fueled second-half momentum in the Gators’ 62-52 victory.
The South Region final win, which followed three straight exits in the Elite Eight, put the Gators in the Final Four.
Florida (36-2) plays Connecticut (30-8) at 6:09 p.m. EDT today at AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
Wilbekin’s clutch shots have been a major reason Florida entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
He epitomizes the strong resolve of a senior-laden team. One of the best point guards in the nation, he plays a team-high 34 minutes per game. He’s averaging 13.4 points, 3.7 assists and 2.5 rebounds.
“It’s just big moments in the game (are) just fun,” said Wilbekin, who at Gator coach Billy Donovan’s behest graduated high school a year early and was playing college ball at age 17. “And if I’m the one taking the shots, then I’m the one taking the shots, but it could easily be anybody else.”
The Gators are also counting on Wilbekin’s defensive skills to keep Connecticut’s talented guard, Shabazz Napier of Roxbury, in check. Napier scored 26 points in a 65-64 victory over Florida on Dec. 2, one of only two Florida losses. Wilbekin sat out the final minute of that game with a sore ankle.
That Wilbekin and the Gators are where they are, riding a 30-game winning streak, is no small feat.
When the season began, Wilbekin was still suspended for violating a team rule last June. The team also dealt with a suspension to Dorian Finney-Smith and Will Yeguete coming back from a knee injury.