Ask any coach and they’ll tell you. One of the hardest things to do is beat the same team twice in one season. On Tuesday night the Florida Gators men’s basketball team did just that outlasting an inspired Tennessee Volunteer team in Knoxville for their 16 consecutive victory. After dominating the Volunteers in their previous meeting in Gainesville, the Gators knew they would face a much tougher test this time. They were right. Especially in the first half.
In the first of a stretch of four tough road tests in five games, the Gators came out swinging in Knoxville. They opened with their usual tough, pressing defense forcing four turnovers in the first four minutes and running out to a 10-2 early lead. Then the Volunteers got hot.
With guard Jordan McRae knocking down a couple of difficult, contested three point shots and Jarnell Stokes hitting some tough shots in the lane , the Vols came back strong to take a six point lead 32-26 with just under four minutes remaining in the first half. When they weren’t turning the ball over, the Volunteers couldn’t seem to be stopped. They shot 62.5% from the floor and 50% from three point range in the first half. It’s not that the Gators were lackadaisical on defense, the Volunteers just made some terrific shots.
“I thought, in the first half, obviously being in the league as long as I have, Tennessee teams have always been very talented and very good,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterwards. “I knew they were going to shoot the ball well but we wanted to really try to have them shoot the ball on our terms. I thought McRae made two really, really tough shots, one was not defended well by us, but it was still a tough shot by him. He made tough runners, everything they shot in the first half [went in].”
He added, “You’ve got to give them credit because they made some very difficult shots. Even Stokes’ runner across the lane was a tough shot, Richardson made a tough shot. They made a lot of very, very difficult challenged shots, just individual talented plays you’ve got to give them credit for.”
The Gators were able to regroup, however, and close the half on a 7-2 run cutting the deficit to one point going into halftime. They were lucky. It’s not often a team can shoot 36% from the floor while giving up 62% and only be down by a point.
“I was really encouraged coming into the half just from the simple fact that we shot 36 percent from the field, they shot 62, we were down by one,” Donovan said. “That’s generally a recipe where you’re down by 12-15 and now you’re in a real, real hole. So we kind of dug our way out of a six point deficit, got it to one.”
The Gators can thank senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin for that. Playing with poise, he calmly kept his team focused on the court and led the charge back in spite of the loud Thompson-Bolling arena crowd quickly beating the first half buzzer on a coast to coast lay up as time expired for the one point deficit.
“I think it (the late first half run) was important in terms of momentum,” Wilbekin said. “The coaches were saying they punched us here on their home court and we knew they were going to do that and we wanted to punch back. I don’t know what the score was but we made a little push at the end and cut their lead to a one point game.”
The Gators stayed in the game despite the huge disparity in field goal percentage mostly because of good offensive rebounding, forcing turnovers, and hitting their free throws. The Gators had nine offensive rebounds in the first half and 18 for the game which not only extended their possessions but also shortened the game which helped to stem the tide of the Vols ridiculously hot shooting in the first half. They also forced 15 turnovers and were 17-22 (77.3%) from the free throw line while the Volunteers were much less efficient shooting a meager 9-17 (52.9%).
“Our offensive rebounding that was a huge key,” Donovan said. “We had nine offensive rebounds in the first half. We were 1-9 (from the field) which hurt us. We shot the ball better than them from the free throw line that kept it close, I’d say those two things. And then the turnover, you know we turned it over, but I think they turned over ten times in the first half, that kind of helped us a little bit. Those were the three factors that kept it close.”
They survived the first half surge by Tennessee taking their best punch to the gut yet still standing at the half. It was the proverbial ‘we got em right where we want em’ at halftime for the Gators. And indeed they did. Just like the Gators knew coming in that Jordan McRae wouldn’t go 1-15 as he did in the first match up, they also knew the Volunteers wouldn’t shoot 62% in the second half. And they didn’t. Not even close.
At halftime, the Gators decided to utilize their full court press in the second half in an attempt to both shorten the Volunteer offensive possessions and to wear down their very physical frontcourt. It paid off as the shots that were falling like rain in the first half stopped falling in the second half. They only hit 7 of 24 (29.2%) of their second half shots.
“One of the things, we didn’t press a lot in the first half,” Donovan said. “The game I thought for us just got kind of stagnant. They’re going to play Stokes and Maymon a lot of minutes and I thought that for us against them we wanted a game going up and down the floor, really get into a racing game. I thought we pressed predominantly most of the second half. We didn’t turn them over a lot but it was just disruptive in terms of flow. We had them playing with a little bit shorter of a shot clock. But I just think that that’s what happens, you start to get tired and fatigued when you play a lot of minutes like that. Where maybe the same shots you’re making when you’re amped up and excited don’t go in later in the game. And I don’t know if fatigue set in or not but those same shots weren’t going in there in the second half.”
The Gators, who didn’t fare much better shooting 36% from the field for the game, hit shots when they needed to, especially late.
They began the second half strong with a block, a rebound, three free throws, two lay ups, and a jump shot that quickly turned a one point deficit into a six point lead at 42-36. The teams then traded baskets for most of the second half until two quick plays turned the tide of the game.
First, was a transition three point shot by Michael Frazier after Jeronne Maymon’s eighth turnover of the game which put the Gators up by four as the Volunteers were threatening to retake the lead.
“We played good defense, and we were able to get out in transition, and Scottie found me and I was able to knock down an open shot,” Frazier said.
The importance of this play cannot be understated. The Vols had just moved within one point at 54-53 on a running hook shot in the lane by Jarnell Stokes which not only went in but drew Patric Young’s fourth foul of the game with over four minutes remaining. It also got the crowd going and gave the Vols the momentum.
The second play was a huge three point shot by Scottie Wilbekin as the shot clock was expiring less than a minute later which put the Gators up by 7 at 61-54 with 2:27 remaining.
“I was looking for the drive but he kind of stumbled a little bit so I just went up into my shot,” Wilbekin said of his pivotal shot.
The two shots gave the Gators a small cushion and seemingly broke the Volunteers back. When Patric Young made the hustle play of the year for the Gators a short time later, the game was all but over. First, he grabbed a long rebound off a Scottie Wilbekin bail out shot in the lane, which saved a possession and ate clock, then he went airborne diving to grab a loose ball rebound off his own missed jump shot moments later. Those two plays ran off a ton of clock time and put the Volunteers in a position where they had to foul to have any shot.
As well as the Gators played, however, Tennessee had their chances in the second half. A normally man to man defensive team philosophically, they utilitzed a 1-3-1 zone for much of the game to try to prevent the Gators from getting the ball into the paint and to stymie their pick and roll action. It was fairly effective as the Gators often were caught with drives to nowhere ending in flailing shots at the basket and turnovers. During one important stretch midway through the second half they forced three straight turnovers by the Gators which could have given them the lead but failed to capitalize culminating in a missed Josh Richardson dunk which flew over the backboard. They also missed several free throws late which could have tightened the game.
“I thought they did a good job defending us in the game,” Donovan said. “I thought Casey Prather forced too many things where lanes were clogged and closed. When they went 1-3-1 zone we had three turnovers in a row. They, fortunate for us, missed a dunk that went out of bounds, they had a couple of plays on our turnovers where we didn’t get totally killed on those three turnovers.”
The Gators were led by Scottie Wilbekin who had the game of his career setting a career high with 21 points. He also 3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. He played his usual brand of tight disruptive defense but it was two shots that defined this game for the Gators: the buzzer beater at the end of the first half and a clutch three late in the game to put it away. In between he was a steady force on offense controlling the tempo and keeping his teammates calm and steady.
“Scottie played a great game today,” Donovan said. “He’s had a very, very good year. Obviously tonight he was terrific on both ends of the floor. He did a great job on McRae. He obviously had a great game offensively, he had no turnovers, he handled the ball a lot, he made shots he made plays, he did a lot of really good things.”
Michael Frazier was the only other Gator player in double figures finishing with 11 one game after all five starters finished in double figures. The Gators got some help from an unusual place-their bench, getting 14 points including two clutch three pointers from DeVon Walker.
“Those guys [bench players] were huge, especially Devon,” Patric Young said. “I know he’s been struggling a lit bit with his confidence and him coming in there knocking down two big threes. Doe Doe, we can always get a good lift from him, he’s our team leading rebounder and he’s a very talented offensive player especially from behind the three.”
Perhaps the biggest key more than anything else was the Gators matched the Vols physicality and effort particularly in the second half winning the rebound margin, including an amazing 18 offensive rebounds, and just flat out hustling for loose balls best exemplified by Young’s huge diving hustle play.
“We knew that we have to go in there and bleed, and battle, fight, and bite, and scratch, and spar to come up with some loose balls,” Young said. “Everyone got in there. They’re guards trust those guys [Jarnell Stokes and Jerrone Maymon] so much that they really just have those two guys go in so it was a collective team effort, especially from our guards, to come in there and grab a few as well.”
The victory was huge for the four seniors who have had their struggles against Tennessee particularly in Knoxville.
“This was the biggest thing on all of our minds today,” Wilbekin said. “We weren’t thinking about anything else. We weren’t thinking about the last game, we weren’t thinking about the next game. We knew how important this win was to all of us, and we tried to come out and give it our all.”
With the victory, the Gators moved to 22-2 tied for best 24 game start in Gator history with the 2006-2007 team which opened at 24-2. The Gators continue their tough stretch with a road trip to Lexington, Kentucky to take on the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 9 pm eastern and will be broadcast on ESPN.