The old saying goes “familiarity breeds contempt”. For the Florida Gators men’s basketball team it breeds victory. 15 consecutive victories to be exact. Against the Alabama Crimson Tide on Saturday, the Gators used a script that has become all to familiar to fans. Big early lead gets wiped out due to defensive and offensive lapses making for a close game heading into the half and then using great halftime adjustments they run away with it in the second half.
The Gators opened up with a 12-2 run largely on the strength of their suffocating press defense which forced four quick Tide turnovers. The score was 8-0 Gators barely a minute into the game before Alabama even crossed the halfcourt line. Then the Gators appeared to lose focus as often is the case in the first half for them which allowed the Tide to get back into the game. The culprit? Turnovers and poor offensive decision making.
“We got off to a really good start,” Gator head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “I think we were up 10 zip, maybe it was, or 10-2. And then we had a lull there for about 6 or 8 minutes where we turned the ball over, we made some really, really poor decisions in open floor situations. We tried to interior pass and we allowed them obviously to capitalize on some of our turnovers coming back the other way.”
They also had several defensive lapses that left the Tide with open three point looks and easy drives into the lane resulting in fouls and Tide free throws. Trevor Releford, who Donovan admitted was the defensive focus coming in to the game, had 16 first half points going 3-5 from beyond the three point arc. Obviously, that focus didn’t work.
“He (Releford) just got wide open shots and he got it going,” Gator forward Will Yeguete said. “And he’s a really good player, the kind of player that if he gets it going he gets more confident. And I think he had a really good first half.”
The Gators defense, or lack thereof, had a lot to do with that.
“He (Releford) did (shoot well in first half) but we also let him get open for a couple of threes, then he got going,” senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “It’s partly on us but he’s a good player so if you give him an inch he’ll be able to take advantage.”
Besides giving up numerous open three point looks in the first half the Gators also had trouble containing the Tide’s quickness in the lane which put them on the line far too much to satisfy coach Donovan.
“I thought that Alabama did a really, really good job in the game of putting us in some binds where we had to guard a lot of straight line drives, hard drives and we fouled entirely too much,” Donovan said. “We put them to the free throw line 19 times. We had a really hard time defending them. I thought they attacked us very well.”
Overall, however, the Gators defensive effort was poor especially in the first half. It certainly wasn’t anywhere near as good as they have been playing of late. The lapses were across the board. Late reactions, poor efforts against screening action, and a very subdued effort.
“I thought from a defensive standpoint we were late reacting, we didn’t handle a lot of their drives, and we fouled too much,” Donovan said.
Scottie Wilbekin added, “we got out to an early lead and we kind of got a little lackadaisical,” adding “we just didn’t play hard we let off the gas a little bit.”
As has been the case all season, though, the Gators made significant halftime adjustments that helped them take control of the game in the second half.
“We really made a huge emphasis coming out of the half that we were going to really get up on three point shooters,” Donovan said. “What we did was kind of shorten up our pick and roll coverage where our bigs were getting back to their man a little quicker because we put ourselves in some vulnerable situations because we gave Releford so much attention. But Releford didn’t score a lot in pick and roll, it was a lot of off the ball where the ball found him he knocked down a three, a couple one on one plays he made, a couple of times in transition he got fouled.”
Donovan added, “I think the way we win game plan-wise we made some adjustments at the half which I think helped us a little bit, and we eliminated the three point line, we just fouled too much.”
Asked about what coach Donovan said to the players during halftime, Scottie Wilbekin said simply,
“He was just saying we got to do better on defense. They were shooting I think 62% through the first half. So he was just saying we got to do a better job, we’re not guarding the way we usually do.”
Indeed they weren’t guarding the way they have the last few weeks. But did coach get on to them?
“Yeah he got after us a little bit. He just said they’re playing harder than us and they were playing harder than us.”
Despite the Gators appearing to play better defense in the second half, Donovan was unimpressed with the defense overall in this game.
“I thought we were bad the whole game to be honest with you,” Donovan said. “I don’t know what it was for the game but at the half they were at 1.24 DER (Defensive Efficiency Rating) which is really bad. They obviously shot an enormously high percentage. I thought a couple things with us defensively. One, I think I got asked the other day about what makes us so great defensively and I think I made the comment that it’s not a thing that just happens, it’s an every day grind to be really, really good. And we were not where we needed to be. Thank God we had some offense today that helped us.”
Offense is one area that the Gators played much better. They shot 62% (31-50) from the floor overall and did a good job with ball movement, particularly to close out the first half.
“I thought we closed the (first) half offensively real well,” Donovan said. “We scored on 9 of our last 10 possessions. We tied the game.”
They continued to play better offensively in the second half with patience and good ball movement taking control of the game on the strength of a 25-7 run which resulted in a fifteen point lead with 8:39 reamining.
“I thought in the second half when we got that eight or nine point lead before it went to fifteen, a lot of it was against their zone because we did a really good job against their zone,” Donovan said. “Then we forced them to go man, they went man and we were still effective.”
As is usually the case with these Gators, their defense sparked the offensive run that took them from 41-39 deficit to a 64-49 lead.
“I thought there were a couple of key points in the game to really put the game out of reach. I thought the first play was, in the press, we had two back to back steals, Frazier knocked down a three took the lead from maybe twelve to fifteen. And then we stole it again, we moved the ball and it ended up in Patric’s hands, he got fouled underneath the basket.
Despite the fifteen point lead, however, the victory was never secure until less than a minute remaining as the Tide continued to fight until the end and the Gators allowed them to hang around.
“We missed both free throws (after Young was fouled) to put us up seventeen;” Donovan said, “it stays at fifteen, they come down and score, it goes to thirteen. And then right around the next possession I think it was still thirteen, there was a missed shot we played really good defense and we didn’t block out on the weakside and they got a I think a three point play or two more free throws. Those two plays there with our missed free throws cut the lead from fifteen right down to nine. We lost like six points in a very short period of time where if we could have got that rebound, could have made a couple of free throws, I think we could have gotten up by eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and then it becomes really challenging. but give them credit, they made the plays to keep themselves alive in the game.”
So the Gators used a very familiar script to win their 15th consecutive game, 29th in a row at home, and remain undefeated in the SEC (10-0). They do, however, have plenty to work on and get better at as they approach the meat of their SEC schedule.
“I’m happy we won,” Donovan said. “I think as a coach you’re always looking for areas to improve. I’m proud of these guys in terms of their commitment each and every day to work hard and to try to get better. They’ve been a really great team, we’ve got good chemistry, we’ve got good connectivity. They get along very well, they want to win, they play for each other, they’re unselfish. All those things are very, very positive.”
With upcoming road games against the top half of the SEC, the Gators will certainly need to cut out the offensive lapses, defensive lulls, and loss of focus when they get a lead. And despite opening 10-0 in conference play, Donovan isn’t necessarily impressed.
“On the other side of it (10-0 SEC mark), you don’t know how your league schedule when it’s given to you, how it’s going to shake out. Going on the road to Mississippi State is a hard game, it’s a hard game to play. Going to Auburn is a hard game to play. Going to Arkansas is a hard game to play. Going to Alabama is a hard game to play. Those are hard road games. But in reality if you look at the league standings right now, most of our road games have been against the bottom half of this league. And most of our schedule has been against the bottom half of this league. Now we did play Tennessee here at home, we did play Missouri here at home, but most of our games have been against the bottom half of the league. And now with four of the next five on the road, going to Tennessee on Tuesday and only having one home game in the next two weeks, and then five of your last eight are on the road, it’s all going to even out. So I’m not overly joyous and great because we’re 10-0, I think it will all shake out at the end after 18 games and we’re past the half point right now. The thing I’m most proud about our guys has been to keep them really together, playing hard playing well together.”
If these Gators continue to play like they did on Saturday, the 15 game winning streak could easily be history.
“It’s kind of gone our way,” Donovan warned, “but we’re going to end up playing some teams right now where you played defense like we did tonight and you’re not going to win.
From here, the Gators begin a two game road slate beginning on Tuesday night against Tennessee, a team they dominated in their last match up in the O’Connell Center, before going to Kentucky next Saturday. Tuesday night’s game is scheduled for a 7 pm eastern tip off and is the third straight game to be broadcast nationally on ESPN. The Kentucky game will also be live on ESPN.