Wilbekin, defense send Gators to the semis

Florida Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) drives past Missouri Tigers forward Keanau Post (45) in the quarterfinals of the SEC college basketball tournament at Georgia Dome. Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) drives past Missouri Tigers forward Keanau Post (45) in the quarterfinals of the SEC college basketball tournament at Georgia Dome. Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

ATLANTA - Before the Southeastern Conference Tournament began, Scottie Wilbekin was named the league’s player of the year. Several of the reasons for the league-wide honor were on display as Florida pulled away from Missouri in Friday’s quarterfinals.

Wilbekin hit five 3-pointers and keyed a crucial second-half run that sent the top seed Gators to a 72-49 victory and into today’s semifinals.

The Gators (30-2), who still haven’t lost in 19 conference games this season and won their 24th consecutive game, will play fourth-seeded Tennessee in today’s semifinals at 1 pm.

It was a two-point game eight minutes into the second half before the game-deciding stretch ensued.

In 50 seconds, Florida scored seven quick points. First, the Gainesville school got a lay up from Will Yeguete and a steal and 3-pointer from Wilbekin to go up 43-36. After Yeguete cleared Jabari Brown’s missed 3-pointer at the other end, Patric Young powered his way for an easy bucket and the Gators led 45-36 and forced a Missouri timeout.

Wilbekin was at it again two minutes later. The senior guard stole a pass from Keanau Post and after diving on the court and securing the ball, got a quick Florida timeout. After the break, Casey Prather hit two free throws and Wilbekin drained another three for a 12-0 run and a 50-36 cushion.

Michael Frazier was just as good as his backcourt mate from behind the arc, also hitting five threes. Florida, which is trying to win its first SEC title since 2007, went 12 of 21 from behind the arc.

Missouri shot just 36 percent from the field and went 5:45 without a field goal, part of a 30-8 run that put Florida up 68-44 with 1:44 to go. The eighth-seeded Tigers were held to just six field goals over the final 20 minutes.

“I think it starts with getting stops, because if we score and they score, it won’t be a run,” said Wilbekin. “But especially when we can make threes, it gets us a little bit more separation. But the key is getting stops.”

“I thought our guys competed hard,” said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose team fell to 22-11. “Eleven minutes to go in the second half they were shooting 31 percent, then obviously they made shots and got it going a little bit. They did what they do, hats off to them. Florida’s a great team.”

Missouri led throughout the first 12 minutes of the game, going up by as much as four points, and still led 13-10 after a nice jumper near the foul line by Jordan Clarkson.

The Tigers then went nearly six minutes with just one made field goal, and Florida finally took its first lead at the 9:49 mark. Wilbekin had a trio of 3-pointers, including the go-ahead triple that put the Gators up 15-14.

Florida hit six 3-pointers in the opening half and built leads as large as six points, including at 29-23 when Kasey Hill grabbed a defensive rebound and went coast-to-coast for a lay up with 3 1/2 minutes to play.

Those were the last points in the half for the top seed.

Clarkson drove and hit a short jumper, starting Missouri on a 6-0 half-ending run that closed when with the game clock at 2, Clarkson improvised and found a wide open Ryan Rosburg for a dunk that pulled the teams even at 29-29 going into the halftime locker room.

Brown, the SEC’s regular season scoring champion who Friday led all scorers with 18 points, had a jumper early in the second and Missouri trailed only 38-36 after Clarkson’s lay up. It was as close as the Tigers would get.

While Florida was excellent from long range, Missouri struggled, hitting only 1 of its 13 three-point attempts, including Brown and Clarkson, the SEC’s 7th-leading scorer who had 11 points Friday, combining for an 0 for 9 performance.

“I feel like they play in tandem with each other well,” said Brown. “When they play in the zone they’re pretty long (and) they’re a disciplined team.”

Tennessee reached the semifinals with its fifth consecutive victory, 59-44 over 13th-seeded South Carolina.

All-SEC first-team members Jarnell Stokes picked up his 19th double-double of the season with a 22-point, 15-rebound performance, while fellow all-league selection Jordan McRae added 14 points.

The Vols (21-11) used their defense, a top-20 unit nationally in scoring defense, to limit the Gamecocks (14-20) to a 28 percent shooting performance.

Florida and Tennessee last met in the league tournament in a 2011 quarterfinal game won by the eventual runner-up Gators.

In the evening doubleheader, No. 2 seed Kentucky played seventh-seeded LSU, while third-seeded Georgia and No. 6 Mississippi closed the quarterfinal round in games that ended too late for this edition.