Scottie Wilbekin, named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year three days earlier, did his best Reggie Miller impersonation to spark a listless Gators team en route to a 72-49 shellacking over Missouri (22-11) in Friday’s quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.
The top-ranked Gators (30-2) will play Tennessee in the semifinals Saturday (1 p.m., ABC) after storming on a 19-4 second-half sprint, energized by Wilbekin’s highlight diving-steal and dagger 3-pointer.
With 10 minutes remaining in a two-point contest, Florida’s senior point guard — who scored a team-high 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting from behind the arc — stole Missouri’s imbounds pass following a Will Yeguete layup. Wilbekin instinctively dished the ball back to Yeguete, who immediately kicked it back out to Wilbekin for the corner trey.
“That play lifted us up quite a bit,” freshman point guard Kasey Hill said.
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“Everyone wanted to play a lot harder after that. We didn’t want to be great in the first half, but [Coach Billy Donovan] challenged us and everybody stepped up.”
A game squared at 29-all at halftime quickly turned into a laugher, as Florida — engineered by Wilbekin’s effort — woke up from its first-half trance and rained three-pointers, dunks and layups during its second-half romp.
Sophomore sniper Michael Frazier added 15 points on five three-pointers and SEC Sixth-Man of the Year Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in 10 points and nine rebounds off the bench, as Florida extended its school-record winning-streak to 24 games.
“We came out a step slow, lethargic. That’s not going to cut it moving forward,” Frazier said. “It was a good lesson. We can’t mess around. … We were able to feed off Scottie’s momentum and go on a good run.”
But the Gators’ spectacular spurtability masked a lackluster and sloppy first half. Despite drilling six treys, Florida was constantly frustrated by Mizzou’s feisty matchup zone.
The Gators, visibly off-rhythm following their longest layoff (six days) since December, had four turnovers and an air ball on their first seven offensive possessions. Seniors Patric Young and Casey Prather struggled mightily in the first half, combining for three turnovers and 1-of-7 shooting from the field.
Yet Missouri, who’s futile chances for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid likely ended with the loss, failed to capitalize on Florida’s woeful first 30 minutes.
“The one thing about this group is they’re very resilient. They battle and fight,” Donovan said.
“Things were not going their way in the first half, and I thought we looked a bit pouty and cranky to me. Then I thought in the second half we moved past that and got to playing to the identity we play to.”
Added Wilbekin: “We knew Missouri was going to give us their best effort. We didn’t do a good job matching their effort and that’s what we tried to correct in the second half.”
Wilbekin played like a man possessed after halftime, willing the nation’s top team to its weekly NOS-infused separation surge.
He collected four steals in the second half, as Florida held the Tigers scoreless for an eight-minute stretch during its explosive run. The Gators stymied Mizzou’s talented scoring trio (Jordan Clarkson, Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross) for the game’s final 20 minutes, as they combined for just 5-of-14 shooting and six turnovers after halftime.
“We’ve got a group of guys that are pretty cerebral and pretty good at making adjustments,” Donovan said. “I was disappointed in the first half with our seniors. …But I give them credit, at halftime they got it corrected and showed some resiliency and some fight, battle in the second half.”