Florida picked the worst possible time to have its worst game of the season.
And there will be no third national championship for Billy Donovan because of it.
The Gators stumbled and fumbled their way through 40 ugly minutes of basketball, falling to the Connecticut Huskies 63-53 in Saturday night’s NCAA Tournament semifinals. The loss was Florida’s most-lopsided of the season.
And so, it all abruptly ends — the school-record, 30-game winning streak, the careers of a heralded senior class that had won more games than anyone in UF history.
Scottie Wilbekin is one of those seniors. His final game in a Florida uniform was one to forget.
Wilbekin struggled to get past All-American guard Shabazz Napier all night and managed just four points on 2-of-9 shooting. It was his second-lowest output of an otherwise sterling season.
“The difference in the game was Scottie Wilbekin couldn’t live in the lane like he has all year for us,” Donovan said. “He had a really hard time getting around [Ryan] Boatright and Napier. It made our offense really difficult.”
For Donovan, it was a sickening sense of deja vu. Twenty-seven years ago, as a senior at Providence, he willed the Friars on a surprising Final Four run. But when he couldn’t create offense in the national semifinal against Syracuse, it all unraveled.
Wilbekin, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, ended his career the same way. Adding injury to insult, he had to briefly ask out of the game early in the second half after cramping up for the second game in a row.
Wilbekin committed three of Florida’s 11 turnovers — an uncharacteristically high figure. As a team, the Gators managed just three assists.
“Crazy,” Wilbekin said. “That’s not usually what we do. All credit goes to them and their guards, the way they deny, put pressure on us.”
Napier, meanwhile, plays on — thanks to an all-around night in which he was more facilitator than scorer. He dished out six assists to go along with 12 points.
Patric Young led Florida with a season-high 19 points; Casey Prather added 15. UConn’s DeAndre Daniels led all scorers with 20 points and had 10 rebounds.
The decisive outcome proved once again that you can’t judge a game by its opening moments. Florida raced to a 7-0 lead in the game’s first three minutes, forcing Huskies coach Kevin Ollie to burn an early timeout.
The lead ballooned to 16-4 — signifying Connecticut’s biggest deficit of the tournament — when the light came on for the Huskies (31-8).
Connecticut reeled off 11 consecutive points in less than two minutes and tied the game with a 16-4 run with its own.
The Gators (36-3) were as inept offensively to end the half as the Huskies were to begin it. Florida made just two baskets in the final 10:10, trudging into the locker room down 25-22.
Connecticut’s lead swelled to five, then six, then nine early in the second half — each time marking the Gators’ largest deficit of the tournament.
The Huskies’ lead crested with a 10-point advantage before Florida finally realized it was in a dogfight. The Gators responded by scoring nine of the next 11 points, and Prather’s and-one bucket finally got Florida back within one score.
But the Gators would get no closer. A snapshot of Wilbekin’s struggles came with roughly seven minutes left in regulation. Napier, in one-on-one coverage, stripped Wilbekin and threw it ahead to Boatright for run-out basket.
Lobs on consecutive UConn possessions then led to two more easy baskets, and just like that, the deficit was back to double figures.
The Gators would never threaten again.
“It’s really tough,” Young said afterward. “It hasn’t hit me that we aren’t going to be together in the same way again.
“I’m going to cherish everything we had this year, and it’s something I’m never going to forget.”