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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Gators’ problem now their solution

ORLANDO — He played a lousy game in Florida’s NCAA tournament opener. So did his team.

But if you’re looking for a poster child for bouncing back, there’s Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin.

How do you go from suspended for your team’s first five games this season to SEC Player of the Year and SEC tournament MVP? How do you go from the house under the dog house, from Florida coach Billy Donovan issuing you an ultimatum — change or leave … oh, and go live with your parents — to directing the top-ranked Gators to 28 straight wins?

Talk about survive and advance.

Wilbekin has come that far.

Watching Scottie grow.

Saturday against Pittsburgh, we watched Scottie go. And go. Wilbekin willed Florida to its unprecedented fourth consecutive Sweet 16, leading the charge in the Gators’ 61-45 win.

It was his game-high 21 points. It was his withering pressure as the Gators returned to their thumping defensive style. It was his horn-beating 3-point runner from the top of the free throw circle to end the first half. But it was in a seven-minute stretch late in this game when Wilbekin truly dominated, scoring 13 of Florida’s 15 points to put it away. He knocked down a 3. He penetrated. Driving layup. Driving layup. He hit a sweet left-handed runner. Ballgame.

“I would say that it just happened,” Wilbekin said. “Our offense isn’t really designed for one player to do something. The ball was in my hands ... and I was able to get down the lane. They were kind of pressuring out, so I was able to get into the lane, and the bigs weren’t really stepping up on me, so I was able to finish.”

Wilbekin worked himself into exhaustion. Lifted by Donovan, he left to a standing ovation. Florida heads for Memphis.

“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. “People get a chance maybe to see him grow as a player. I got a chance to see him grow as a person.”

Watching Scottie grow.

Wilbekin was a prep prodigy at The Rock School in Gainesville. He graduated in three years. He had big dreams, though apparently too many revolved solely around him.

He was suspended for violating team rules as a Florida junior. Then it happened again, more violations, so Donovan drew a real line.

He told Wilbekin he was free to transfer for a fresh start. Or he could work his way back to his senior season by first conforming to strict rules and regimen, including isolation — everything, even workouts, away from the team, months of away. Another condition: Wilbekin agreed to move back in with his folks, the rock-solid Katy and Svend Wilbekin, never a bad thing.

Still ... living at home?

I bet you college seniors just had a shiver run down your spines.

But this was a blessing. Scottie Wilbekin returned to his team with his best basketball and behavior. And a leader was born.

“The long suspension for him had more to do with, for me, he needed to regain credibility inside our team,” Donovan said. “He had lost all credibility. So I tried to put him in a situation where he could show his commitment to the rest of those guys.

“And I think once he made that commitment that he wanted to finish out his career here, he wanted to work his way back, he’s a guy who loves challenges. The challenge I was presenting 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. He went through a very, very difficult time because he was separated from our team for so long.”

“I think it’s helped me become a better leader, be more connected with my teammates and coach,” Wilbekin said.

Survive. Advance.

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