On a day when the Florida Gator faithful “Striped the O’Dome”, it was the Tennessee Volunteers who ended up with orange and blue stripes down their backs. They came to Gainesville seeking to maintain a level of dominance against the Gators having won the last three consecutive games in the series, but it was the Gators who would dominate in this one. Playing “desperate”, they used a strong second half defensive performance and a balanced scoring effort to run away with it 67-41.
Coming into the game against Tennessee, head coach Billy Donovan preached about playing with desperation after two somewhat lackadaisical efforts on the road against Auburn and Alabama.
“Coach had a recurring theme of being desperate,” center Patric Young said after the game. “Each game is a championship game, and every possession is a championship possession. the winning play is there for us to take. We were all locked in and really focused on doing whatever what it took to win, to hold them down.”
The first half, though, was anything but as the Volunteers kept it close by repeatedly beating the Gators to offensive rebounds allowing them multiple second and third chance opportunities. The Gators led by only seven points at the half despite holding the Vols to a paltry 26.9% (7-26) from the field in the first half and only 1-8 (12.5%) from three point range.
In the second half, though, the Gators played with more intensity. After Dorian-Finney Smith dove for a loose ball and kicked it out to Michael Frazier who then dropped a three point bomb, the raucous crowd almost blew the lid off the O’Dome roof. From there the Gators cranked up the intensity to take the fight out of the Tennessee players and take control of the game.
It was a welcome sight to Gator fans who watched nervously as the Gators stumbled along through two nail biters against seemingly inferior foes in Alabama and Auburn and were now playing a team that had won three in a row in the series and seemingly had the Gators’ number. Billy Donovan actually had a losing record against the Vols (16-18) coming in.
“I was a little bit disappointed the last two games,” Donovan said. “I told our guys coming out of Auburn and coming out of Alabama, ‘I thought we won the battle and lost the war’. What I meant by that is I thought our team in terms of a standard that I’d like to see our guys play up to, not that we’re going to be perfect, but we lost that war. The result was a” W”against those two teams on the road but we didn’t play to the level or expectation I thought we could play at defensively. There were times we were very, very just mediocre. There were some times we were very good. but it was a level of inconsistency that just wasn’t good. Tonight I thought we played closer to our identity and our potential on the defensive end of the floor. I think the last two games we didn’t do that, so it was encouraging to me to see our guys come out with that kind of focus.”
For a team that thrives on defensive intensity, desperation led to perhaps the Gators best defensive effort of the season, maybe even better than the second half against Kansas. For the game, the Gators held Tennessee to 26.8% (15-56) shooting from the field and a horrid 1-19 (5.3%) from three point range. They held Tennessee to their lowest offensive output of the season (previous low was 54), 33 points below their season average (74.8). The SEC’s 3rd ranked shooter and Tennessee’s leading scorer Jordan McRae finished an abysmal 1-15 from the field and finished with only 5 points, fourteen below his season average. That kind of sums up what kind of defensive performance it was for the Gators.
“When you can hold him (Jordan McRae) to five points and he gets frustrated and the coach has to take him out, your team did something right that night,” Patric Young said. “I think we did something right tonight.”
Shutting down McRae who killed them last season was the Gators’ primary focus coming in to the game.
“I think we kind of understood a lot of things they were going to try to do for him to free him (McRae) up,” Donovan said. “I think like most scorers when he gets going early in games he becomes very difficult to stop because he’s got really good length and size. I thought we made him make some tough shots early. I thought most of the shots we made him take were really difficult. He didn’t really have a lot of wide open looks, most of the shots were challenged. I just think we were there on the catch and we provided some help.”
On offense, the Gators were very balanced with four players finishing in double figures and getting a good mix of points in the paint and from the outside. The Gators are very tough to defend when they do that. It’s something that Billy Donovan has preached throughout his time in Gainesville.
“I think it’s critical,” Donovan said after the game of being balanced offensively. “I’ve always been a big believer, you want four to six guys in double figures. I tell our guys all the time, ‘you don’t know who’s night it’s going to be in terms of having a big offensive night.’ Today I thought we were pretty balanced. We had inside-out, we had several guys. I’ve never been a big believer of having just one guy. I just think you want to be balanced.”
Michael Frazier led the way for the Gators with 17 points on 5-8 shooting from the field and 3-6 from beyond the three point arc. He also grabbed four rebounds and had two assists. Frazier, primarily a three point shooter who had previously been wildly inconsistent game to game this season, made an effort to do more in this game than just spotting up and shooting the three often times making a shot fake, putting the ball on the floor, and driving the lane. This led to a couple of layups and more opportunities for others.
“Coach told me I could use my shot fake to make plays for my teammates and any time I could do that it’s good for our team,” Frazier said.
It led to a monstrous Sports Center highlight one-handed slam by Patric Young.
“Pat set a good screen and he rolled hard to the basket and I was able to get down the lane and toss it up to him,” said Frazier of the huge play that set the crowd on fire and Twitter abuzz. “It’s always exciting, fun. Those types of plays are fun but where we really won the game is when we sat down and guard on defense.”
Scottie Wilbekin continued his stellar play from the point guard position, repeatedly hitting clutch shots and controlling the tempo of the game finishing with 13 points and leading the defensive charge. He leads the Gators’ press which consistently harassed the Vols into turnovers and timeouts and kept them from getting into any kind of rhythm offensively and it really set the tempo defensively.
“We certainly want to stretch the floor and press,” coach Donovan said. “I thought our press was really, really good tonight although maybe they didn’t turn it over a lot. It was disruptive to them, it took away their flow. We really want to be in the half court defensively, sound and we want to be in the right positions. And we want to be disciplined in terms or our coverages and what we’re doing. And I thought tonight that was a better job than maybe the last two games.”
Leading scorer Casey Prather shot 5-7 from the floor finishing with 12 points the 17th consecutive game he finished in double figures for the Gators. Patric Young finished with 10 points and 5 rebounds with a steal. Will Yeguete also had a solid game finishing with four points, four rebounds, an assist, and a steal. While a lot of what he does doesn’t show up in the stat sheet he provides hustle and energy on defense particularly on the press. Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in 9 points off the bench, 8 rebounds, an assist, and a steal. It was his hustle play, however, going for and grabbing a loose ball near the sidelines and kicking it out to an open Frazier who drained a three that really set the O’Dome crowd on fire. It pushed the intensity level to even greater heights for the Gators defensively early in the second half. It was a desperation play that Donovan had preached about and it helped lead them to victory.
“I think you’ve got to try to create these kind of situations where you’ve got to be desperate,” Donovan reiterated. “And a lot of times you’ve got to be desperate each possession. I think human nature is you can get a little complacent. We need to play with a little bit more desperation. I didn’t think the last two games we played with desperation. I thought today we did a little bit better job just being desperate. I thought our guys played like that tonight which is really good.”
Desperate. Hungry. Victorious.
With the win the Gators move to 17-2 on the season and a perfect 6-0 in the SEC while the Vols drop to 12-7 (3-3 SEC). Next up for the Gators is a trip to Starkville, Mississippi to take on the Mississippi State Bulldogs on Thursday evening. Tip off is scheduled for 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2.