GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Scottie Wilbekin waved off teammates, ignored signals from the bench and backed down his defender as the final seconds ticked off the clock.
Wilbekin pulled up, swished a 3-pointer from well behind the arc and raised his arms triumphantly as he jogged to the locker room for halftime in the South Region final.
It was a game-changing shot against Dayton — one that should have surprised no one.
Wilbekin has become one of the best closers in college basketball, delivering clutch shots and defensive stops in crunch time for the top-seeded Gators (36-2). He’s been called the best all-around point guard in the country, and it’s hard to argue considering how he’s played in the NCAA tournament.
The 6-foot-2 senior is averaging a team-high 16.8 points in four tournament games. He also has 12 assists, eight rebounds, six steals and just two turnovers. Throw in his defense — he frustrated Albany’s Peter Hooley, Pittsburgh’s James Robinson and Dayton’s Jordan Sibert — and it’s clear that coach Billy Donovan’s decision to give Wilbekin one final chance has been a huge key to Florida’s success.
“It’s been one of the great experiences for me as a coach going through what he and I have gone through together,” Donovan said.
Wilbekin could have his hands full in the Final Four on Saturday night. Not only will he be tasked with directing Florida’s offense, but he also will be the primary defender on All-American guard Shabazz Napier of Connecticut.
Napier scored 26 points in the teams’ first meeting this season, and six of those came in the final minute with Wilbekin in the locker room with a sprained ankle. The Gators sorely missed him down the stretch in the one-point loss.
It was a glimpse of where Florida would be without the Gainesville native.
Donovan suspended Wilbekin indefinitely last June for a violation of team rules. It was Wilbekin’s second suspension in seven months, and Donovan even suggested that Wilbekin transfer to get a fresh start elsewhere.
But after a few days contemplating his future, Wilbekin asked for another chance. Donovan insisted Wilbekin move back home with his parents — his father is a team pastor at a local high school — and work to “regain credibility” with the team. Wilbekin responded better than Donovan expected.
“People get a chance maybe to see him grow as a player. I got a chance to see him grow as a person,” Donovan said. “It was a struggle and a battle.”
Donovan reinstated Wilbekin after the first five games of the season, a punishment that may have cost Florida in a loss at Wisconsin but paid long-term dividends.
“He had lost all his credibility, so I tried to put him in a situation where he could show his commitment to the rest of those guys,” Donovan said. “He is a kid that learned some valuable lessons. … He’s a guy that loves challenges, and what I was presenting in front of him was a real, real challenge because I’d kind of painted a picture that said, ‘I don’t believe you can do it or will do it.’ I said, ‘Time will tell.’ And I think he thrived on that.”
The Southeastern Conference player of the year has grown tired of talking about the suspension, but recognizes it’s become a feel-good story with Florida advancing in the tournament.
“Sometimes I feel like there’s so much out there that it doesn’t need to be asked anymore and I don’t know how I can answer it in a different way,” Wilbekin said. “But I understand it because I guess it’s a good story that I was suspended and now I’ve won some awards at the end of the year.”
Added teammate Michael Frazier II: “He’s definitely grown a lot just from where he was in the summer to now. I’m very proud of how much he’s grown as a person as well as a player.”
Wilbekin and the Gators would rather talk about all his clutch plays, like how he took over down the stretch against Pittsburgh in the tournament or hit huge shot after huge shot in wins at Arkansas in January, at Kentucky and at Tennessee in February or against Dayton in the regional final.
“He’s got an enormous amount of confidence in himself,” Donovan said. “But there are guys that can have that kind of confidence and not have a real good awareness. If you were just determined to shoot the basketball, regardless of what the defense does and then you’ve got other guys open for shots, that’s not good, you know? And there are certain guys that have an ego that they want to take the last shot. They want to be the hero.
“A lot of times taking the last shot may or may not be the right play. … You’ve got to have a good awareness when the ball is in your hands of being able to make those kind of decisions. I think for Scottie he’s done a real, real good job of balancing both.”
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