On Friday morning, Florida Gators head basketball coach Billy Donovan announced that leading scorer Casey Prather, who missed the previous two games due to a bruised knee, was cleared for contact and would be available to play against Auburn. How much Donovan wasn’t sure of because Prather hadn’t yet faced any contact. Donovan hinted that Prather would likely be limited in the game. That plan went right out the window as Prather, showing no ill effects of his almost two week layoff, carried the Gators with 21 points including 16 in the first half, leading them to victory over the Tigers 68-61.
In a game where the SEC’s leading three point shooter, Michael Frazier, was held scoreless, the Gators struggled to find offense against a surprisingly tough, and inspired Auburn defense. Thank goodness for Prather who picked up right where he left off before the injury. The Gators certainly couldn’t have won this one without him.
“I’m not sure if he (Prather) was hurt again this game if this was a game we could pull out,” Donovan said in the post-game press conference. “We didn’t play well in my opinion. I felt Auburn had a lot to do with that.”
It was clear from the start that Auburn’s plan defensively was to smother Frazier who killed them from beyond the arc in last season’s meeting. Objective met. Frazier was repeatedly frustrated by Auburn’s suffocating defense which limited his touches in the game. The Tigers played very tight defense and through much of the game kept the Gators from getting into any kind of offensive rhythm.
However, the game didn’t quite start out that way. Utilizing a 14-1 run the Gators jumped out to a 23-10 lead midway through the first half. They forced numerous Auburn turnovers and kept the Tigers from scoring for over a seven minute stretch which led to some fast break opportunities and clutch shooting. Other than the 3-3 three point shooting effort to open the game, Auburn was struggling and it appeared the Gators might run away with this one. Auburn then turned the tables on the Gators as they went on a 14-0 run of their own to claw their way back into the game and finished the first half down by only one at 33-32.
It was a tight game the rest of the way as the Gators repeatedly allowed Chris Denson to get easy looks in the lane off the pick and roll and K.T. Harrell some open looks from three point range. The Gators repeatedly appeared to be a step slow defensively which allowed Auburn to get high percentage looks keeping them in the game. After the game, coach Donovan admitted that he was disappointed with the Gators defensive effort.
“You know where (Chris) Denson and where (K.T.) Harrell are going to get their shots from,” Donovan said. “The things that we knew were coming we just did a very, very poor job. Especially our bigs in the game. We had situations in pick and roll coverage that our bigs constantly let them turn the corner and got down the lane, and then we had situations in the middle of the floor where Denson and those guys took us straight off the dribble right to the basket. and we have to do a better job there defensively than we did.”
Quite possibly that could have been an understatement. A normally strong pick and roll defense, a staple of Billy Donovan coached teams, just didn’t have it against Auburn. Whether they let their guard down because they thought they had an overmatched opponent and could just mail it in, or the lagging effects of travel for a road game, or just an inspired crowd, either way it allowed the Tigers to do what they wanted on far too many possessions. And it kept Auburn in the game. It very well could have lost the game for them if not for some clutch shots by seniors Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young, particularly down the stretch, and a strong defensive effort by Will Yeguete.
While Prather carried the Gators in this one, Scottie Wilbekin saved them. No bigger shot was more clutch than a back step, falling backwards jump shot in the lane by Scottie with 1:24 remaining and the Gators clinging to a one point lead. The home crowd was loud and the Tigers had the momentum after Tahj Shamshid-Deen closed the Tigers to within one following a Kasey Hill turnover. Auburn had forced the Gators late into the shot clock when Wilbekin took the off balance jumper which took some of the life out of the home crowd.
“He made a tough shot in the lane and I think that put us up by three,” Donovan said of the clutch jumper. “Scottie obviously made a big shot for us that always helps.”
From there the Gators got a couple of stops with Patric Young grabbing a couple of clutch rebounds while Wilbekin and Kasey Hill made some free throws to hold on for the victory.
For his part, Donovan said afterwards he really didn’t know what to expect out of Prather coming in.
“I said yesterday and I meant it, I didn’t really know what to expect out of him,” Donovan said. “He looked just ok at best on Thursday, didn’t do any contact. For me to play him here today, he was going to have to do some contact or least show me he can play. I think the difficult situation you get into as a coach is when you’ve got a guy that’s been cleared to play and you haven’t seen him practice. You don’t know what to expect, your teammates don’t know what to expect. so yesterday he got out there and he looked pretty good. I told the team before the game, with him being back, we’re not going to put pressure on him for him to come back to the form he was at a week or two ago. Because just his rhythm or those types of things. but that all went out the window at the end of the first half when he had sixteen.”
Prather returned and picked up right where he left off and the Gators walked away with their ninth straight victory and moved to 4-0 and sole possession of first place in the SEC after Texas A&M lost to Mississippi State. Next up for the Gators is a road trip to Tuscaloosa to take on the Alabama Crimson Tide on Thursday evening. Tip off is set for 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast on ESPN2.