Florida 79, UCLA 68: Gators growl late for fourth straight Elite Eight berth

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Once again, Florida needed a run and a savior. Once again, that was Scottie Wilbekin. But the Gators' bench came to play, too, and the team finished off UCLA with a run that propelled them to their fourth straight Elite Eight.

It's becoming old hat, this act by Scottie Wilbekin: Florida gets itself in a bind of sorts, or lets its lead fritter away, or goes cold for minutes, and the Gators' senior point guard throws on his cape, performs some deeds of derring-do, and all is well.

Thursday night brought Wilbekin's best-timed rescue of the season — and a 79-68 win over UCLA that propelled Florida to the Elite Eight for the fourth consecutive year.

Being elite is old hat for these Gators, too.

After UCLA closed to within one point, at 56-55, with 10:04 to play — on a Norman Powell finish that came seconds after Patric Young picked up his fourth foul to join Casey Prather — the Gators responded with a 10-0 run over the next five minutes. Wilbekin capped it with a 6-0 personal run, featuring a cold-blooded three-pointer and a marvelous floating finish that turned into an and-one. The spurt all but put UCLA away, as the Bruins failed to get closer than five points in the final 7:12 of play.

Wilbekin finished with 13 points despite making just two of his eight threes, and was joined in double figures by Gators starters Casey Prather (12 points on five shots) and Michael Frazier II (19 points and five threes to lead all players in both categories). But while Wilbekin did his superhero impression, and Frazier heated up after a cold start to the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the game-saving plays were made by Florida's bench.

Kasey Hill was astoundingly good for the Gators off the bench, scoring six points, handing out 10 assists, and snagging six rebounds — in 28 minutes of play. But he wasn't Florida's leading bench scorer, because Dorian Finney-Smith had 10 points (and six rebounds, and four assists) off the pine, and Hill wasn't even the second-leading bench scorer for the Gators, because Chris Walker played his finest game in a Florida uniform, scoring seven points, snagging three rebounds, and recording a showy block in six minutes of action.

Hill was a revelation all night, dashing hither and yon as the best point guard on a floor that hosted Wilbekin and UCLA's NBA-bound Kyle Anderson, but Walker was unstoppable, throwing up a circus banker that somehow went in, grabbing his own missed free throw and putting a shot back up for a backwards three-point play, and finishing on a fine pass from Hill underneath.

And DeVon Walker, pressed into service by foul trouble, had a block of his own, and played yeoman's defense for his seven minutes on the court. Florida's seniors get the majority of the ink spent on this team, but Florida's underclassmen — Frazier, Finney-Smith, Hill, and the Walkers — combined for 42 points, 21 rebounds, 17 assists, two steals, and three blocks against the Bruins. Remove Frazier from that crew, and you just have Florida's bench, which had 23 points, 15 rebounds, 14 assists, a steal, and three blocks, all in just 71 minutes of play.

That more than made up for Young's quiet, foul-plagued night (four points, three rebounds, and one loud plea for a call on a beautiful, twisting finish), and Will Yeguete's 19 minutes of play, as he was limited by UCLA packing the pain. Yeguete still got eight points and seven rebounds on one of his best offensive nights ever, but had to sit repeatedly while Florida brought out different combinations to handle UCLA's many wings, and its bigs that shoot like wings.

But the Bruins shot poorly on this night, making just three of 18 threes and getting better than 50 percent shooting from just David Wear and Tony Parker, each of whom made two of three shots. Anderson, who frustrated Florida with his height and incredible ability to change gears in a nanosecond, had 11 points, nine rebounds, five assists, and two steals, but needed 11 shots to get his points; Jordan Adams, UCLA's leading scorer, had 17 points, just under his seasonal average, but required 15 shots to get his points. Travis Wear added 12 points, but no other Bruin had more than eight, as the Gators sealed the paint, protected the rim, and challenged jumpers.

And now Florida is elite again, with Florida's senior class finally being the contingent to carry the Gators on their fourth trip to the Elite Eight. Florida's fourth consecutive Elite flight is the most in school history, most in the 21st century, and most by any team since Kentucky went to five straight from 1995 to 1999.

But the Gators have yet to cash in any of those Elite Eight appearances, and will face a final hurdle to their first Final Four since 2007 on Saturday, when they meet upstart Dayton.

For all the good work this team has done to this point, the story of their next 36 hours will be the pivotal chapter in the accounting of Florida's magical, wonderful 2013-14 season.

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