Scottie Wilbekin spent most of Thursday night’s game trying to find his shooting touch.
But even with their star point guard struggling, the Gators repeated their recent outcomes against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament.
Michael Frazier II finished with a game-high 19 points and Wilbekin finally found rhythm in the second half, scoring 10 of his 13 points, to help Florida emerge with their fourth consecutive Elite Eight appearance following a 79-68 victory over the Bruins in the South Region semifinal at the FedEx Forum.
“I thought we were playing a very, very unique team style of play-wise,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “It was probably a little different game for our team as it related to our guards having to play post defense more so than they ever had to do before, and our bigs having to guard really good perimeter shooters.
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“Our guys stayed the course.”
The Gators (35-2), the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, won their 29th consecutive game in front of a crowd of 14,991 and will next try to reverse its recent trend of coming up short on the doorstep of the Final Four when they face Dayton (26-10) Saturday night.
“From a team aspect, I think we’ve done a great job all year of just staying in the moment and just trying to chase greatness,” Frazier said.
Dayton, the No. 11 seed and Cinderella story of this year’s tournament so far, beat Stanford 82-72 in the earlier South Region semifinal to advance to its first Elite Eight since 1984.
The Gators will vie for their fourth Final Four appearance and first since winning the second of back-to-back national titles in 2007.
“It feels great because our goal coming into [Thursday] was to make it to the Elite Eight, and that’s what we did,” Wilbekin said. “Right now we have to put this game behind us and get focused on Dayton.”
Florida beat UCLA (28-9) for the fourth time in the NCAA Tournament since 2006.
And it took another solid defensive effort as the Gators held UCLA, which came in averaging 81.7 points per game, to 30 points in the first half.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” Wilbekin said. “They’re capable of going on runs just like we are. We just tried to weather their runs and get good possessions every time.”
Wilbekin, the SEC Player of the Year, who suffered a knee bruise in the Gators’ previous tournament win against Pittsburgh, wasn’t his usual self throughout the first half scoring only three points and shooting only 1 of 7 from the field. UCLA was limited to three assists in the first half and had seven turnovers.
But the UCLA attempting to claw its way back into the game, Wilbekin came up with five clutch points that helped Florida extend its lead to 66-55 and effectively put the game out of reach.
In the second half, the Gators turned the ball over only once as they went with two point guards on the floor at the same time with Wilbekin and freshman Kasey Hill. Hill finished with a game-high 10 assists.
“It takes a pretty mature player to say I’m going to slide off the ball and give the ball to a freshman,” Donovan said. “Scottie has been very good for Kasey and his development.”
After UCLA cut the deficit to 56-55 with 10:04 left in the second half, Florida went on a 10-0 surge that was keyed by a Wilbekin assist to Frazier, a three-point basket and later a drive to the hoop where Wilbekin hit a shot high off the glass and drew a foul later making a free throw.
Frazier, who had struggled shooting in the Gators first two tournament victories, went 5 of 8 from three-point range Thursday and ignited Florida early making his first three attempts from long range. Frazier II tied Lee Humphrey for the UF-record for three-pointers made in a season with his 113.
UCLA coach Steve Alford stressed the importance of scoring against the Gators during the team’s press conference earlier this week.
The Gators found a way to limit UCLA’s 6-9 point guard Kyle Anderson’s effectiveness getting him in foul trouble early. Anderson finished with 11 points and nine rebounds, but wasn’t much of a factor in the second half other than the 9-2 surge that cut Florida’s lead to one point.
Florida limited UCLA to 42.2 percent shooting overall and only 3 of 18 from three-point range.
Florida moved the ball well throughout the first half with assists on their first nine baskets and 11 assists overall. The Gators totaled 22 assists for the game.
Fellow freshman Chris Walker, who had only one rebound in eight combined minutes played in the Gators’ first two tournament games, finished with seven points and three rebounds off the bench.
“I thought Chris gave us good quality minutes and he did a good job,” Donovan said. “He was active. He blocked a shot and had some put backs.”