ATLANTA (AP) - With just over 10 minutes remaining, top-ranked Florida found itself in a dogfight, looking very much like it could be headed for its first loss against a Southeastern Conference team.
Not to worry.
Scottie Wilbekin and the Gators suddenly turned this one into a laugher with one of their customary spurts.
Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II scored 15 points apiece, and Florida dominated down the stretch for a 72-49 rout of Missouri in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament Friday, giving the Gators their 24th consecutive victory and likely erasing any question about whether they’ll be a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
Florida, as always, found a way to seize control.
As usual, it came down to defense and 3-point shooting.
“We’ve got a group that’s pretty cerebral and they’re pretty good at making adjustments,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
The Gators (30-2) went 12-of-21 from 3-point range, making their final five attempts. And the swarming defense forced 14 turnovers, leading to 19 points.
The final score was hardly indicative of how it went most of the game. Missouri sprinted to the locker room on a high - tied at 29 after Ryan Rosburg’s buzzer-beating dunk - and the Tigers were still in it approaching the midway point of the second half.
“I was disappointed in our first half,” Donovan said. “I thought we looked a little it out of it and didn’t play as well as we’d hoped to.”
But any thoughts of a major upset against the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC during the regular season quickly faded away.
Wilbekin made sure of that.
After Will Yeguete laid one in off a nifty pass from Kasey Hill, Florida pressed the inbounds pass, Wilbekin came up with a steal, then got free in the corner for a 3-pointer. Missouri missed at the other end, Patric Young connected on a short hook and just like that, the Gators had stretched a two-point lead to 45-36.
It only got worse from there for the Tigers (22-11).
During a wild scramble on the floor after Keanau Post lost control, Wilbekin yanked the ball away from a Missouri player and smartly called a timeout to ensure the Gators kept possession. Then, coming out of the break, he knocked down another trey to put the Gators ahead 50-36, capping a 12-0 run.
Wilbekin finished 5 of 6 beyond the arc and Frazier was 5 of 7. Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in with 10 points, but this was the usual team effort by the Gators.
Eight Florida players scored at least four points. Hill had five assists. Finney-Smith grabbed nine rebounds.
As the closing seconds ticked off the clock, Donovan was able to clear his bench- even sending in his son.
“It’s hard to get 30 wins,” the coach said.
The Gators outscored Missouri 34-13 over the final 10:06, advancing to face fourth-seeded Tennessee in Saturday’s semifinals. The Volunteers defeated South Carolina 59-44.
“They play in tandem with each other well,” Missouri’s Jabari Brown said. “They always know where their teammates are going to be at. They’re a disciplined team.”
In some ways, this game mirrored Florida’s 68-58 victory over the Tigers in early February. The teams went back-and-forth in that contest, but Frazier knocked down a trio of 3-pointers in a two-minute span, giving the Gators some breathing room.
More of the same in the rematch.
“They made a couple in transition,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “They move the ball so well. They really share the ball.”
Brown scored 18 points to lead Missouri, but Jordan Clarkson with 11 was the only other player in double figures. The Tigers shot just 36 percent (16 of 44) from the field, including a dismal 1-of-13 performance from outside the stripe - which looked even worse next to Florida’s dead-eye shooting from the outside.
Also, Missouri managed just six points off Florida’s nine turnovers.
“They were getting second shots,” Haith said. “I thought that was the difference in the game.”
With Florida, everything plays off their effort at the defensive end.
“It starts with getting stops,” Wilbekin said. “Because if we score and they score, it won’t be a run.”
Now, Missouri will have to hope it’s done enough to land a spot in the NCAA tournament, but its performance in the league may keep the Tigers out. After starting 12-1 and claiming a spot in the Top 25, they went 9-9 in the SEC and split their two games at the Georgia Dome.
“We’ll see,” Brown said.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.pnewberry.com/pnewberry1963
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