It’s been quite a week for the #3 Florida Gators men’s basketball team’s four senior starters. After finally winning in Knoxville on Tuesday night, a place at which they’ve struggled of late, they went to Rupp Arena on Saturday evening where they had never won before and took down the #14 Wildcats 69-59. With the rare Rupp victory, the Gators ended the Wildcats 22 game home win streak and tied a school record with their 17th consecutive victory. The last time the Gators won at in Lexington was 2007, the year they went on to win the Gators second consecutive NCAA tournament championship. Gator fans are hoping that it’s a sign of good things to come for these Gators. The seventeen game streak is shared with the 2005-06 team which won the first of the back to back titles.
The story lines for this one were as long as the lines to get into the ESPN Gameday top 20 match up. Age and experience versus youth and enthusiasm. The Gators unusual senior dominated lineup versus Kentucky’s diaper dandies. A team four years in the making versus a team built overnight.
Kentucky showcased their talented freshman lineup full of future NBA stars in front of a packed home crowd and they gave the Gators everything they could muster. It wasn’t quite enough, however, as seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young, and Will Yeguete withstood every challenge and made a late charge to overcome and hold off the scrappy Wildcats.
It wasn’t easy for the Gators as the Wildcats used a hot shooting touch to take an early 7-2 lead and maintained that hot shooting throughout the evening. The Gators, conversely, started cold and had difficulties throughout getting shots to fall.
“One of the things that happens when you’re playing on the road, there’s going to be some peaks and valleys,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “Obviously we didn’t get off to a great start, I think the score was 7-2. Frazier got a pretty good look. We really struggled shooting the ball. I thought we had good looks in the first half, we didn’t shoot a high percentage at all. I actually thought we played fairly decent defense. They’ve got really, really good shot making ability. When they get in the lane they can make very, very difficult challenge shots.
They did, however, recover from the early deficit to take a small lead and the two teams traded shots at the lead for most of the first half until Kentucky used an 8-1 run to take a 7 point lead with two minutes remaining in the first half. The Gators closed the half strong, though, closing the deficit to 3 points, 31-28, going into halftime.
The second half was more of the same with both teams making small runs keeping the score close. Kentucky maintained the lead for much of the second half with the Gators just trying to keep pace. It wasn’t until five minutes were left in the game when the Gators were able to make their final run and take the lead for good. The Gators closed out the victory on a 14-6 run by isolating Scottie Wilbekin with some pick and roll action and crashing the offensive boards. The Gators hit clutch foul shots down the stretch to hold off the Wildcats for the final score.
The Gators had problems all night getting shots to fall. The final shooting percentage of 44% (22-50) belies the problems the Gators were having with their outside shooting as they were only 3-13 (23.1%) from beyond the three point arc. Despite the shooting woes, the Gators hung tough by crashing the boards against the bigger Kentucky lineup (the Gators finished with 10 offensive rebounds) and playing tough defense limiting the Wildcats shot opportunities and forcing them to turn the ball over. The Gators forced 13 turnovers in the game while only giving it away a season low 5 times themselves.
The Gators struggled most of the night against the 1-3-1 zone defense that Kentucky opened with and utilized for most of the night, a rarity for a team that plays man to man a league high 96% of their defensive possessions. It was successful for the most part against Florida, however, as they struggled to get into an offensive rhythm with their pick and roll and settled for jump shots far too often.
The big turning point for the Gators, though, was when Billy Donovan called an animated timeout with just over three minutes to go and the Gators clinging to a 3 point lead at 60-57. Donovan was upset with the Gators lack of ball movement and energy offensively. When the Gators returned to the floor it was a different team altogether. Rather than settling for outside shots, they kept the ball in Scottie Wilbekin’s hands using ball screens to free him up for drives to the basket which got them to the free throw line and allowed the Gators to crash the offensive boards. The Gators were able to hit most of their free throws down the stretch to hold on for the victory.
“Like I told our guys if they’re going to come and try to block shots when we go to the rim, you got just two responsibilities,” Donovan said. “One, you got to get it up on the glass because it’s going to give us a chance to go offensive rebound. Or, two, you’ve got to pass the ball out and make the extra pass. They obviously blocked three shots which wasn’t a lot for what they normally do. And we did,in the game, get ten offensive rebounds which helped us as well. I just thought the important part for us offensively was when we did drive it and did get down the lane was not to get it blocked where now all of the sudden they’ve got numbers coming at our backcourt players.”
It was a grind for the Gators throughout fighting through their shooting woes, compounded by Kentucky’s hot shooting, and dealing with the loud, raucous Rupp Arena crowd, but they never faltered in the face of adversity. They continued to fight and battle taking advantage of every opportunity and finding ways to manufacture points even when Kentucky took their biggest lead of seven points 45-38 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game.
“We started the second half with the possession,” Donovan said. “We missed the shot then they came down and got two consecutive offensive rebounds, I think they got up as many as seven. It’s just going to be one of those things where you’ve got to kind of stay the course. It’s a forty minute game and there’s going to be those kind of things. With a team as talented and as good as these guys are you’re not going to walk in here [and dominate]. And we haven’t done that at all against anybody on the road where we’ve just dominated from start to finish. It’s always a grind when you’re playing on the road.”
Casey Prather, who’s been battling a high ankle sprain for the last month played very well and paced the Gators with 24 points, four rebounds including three offensive rebounds, and four steals. His quickness and athleticsim gave the bigger Kentucky lineup fits throughout and he dominated the individual match up between him and Julius Randle the talented freshman and former McDonald’s All American. Of his 24 points, 14 were in the paint while Randle finished with only 13 points only 6 of which were scored in the paint. Prather also pulled down a huge offensive rebound late in the game between four taller Wildcat players that may have been the play of the game and personified the difference between the two teams. While it only led to one made free throw by Prather which stretched the Gators lead to six at 65-59, more importantly it stunned the home crowd and seemingly took the life out of the flat footed Wildcat team.
“I thought the rebound there at the end of the game was big,” Donovan said. “I think Scottie missed a baseline jumper over Stein, and he came down with the rebound and they fouled us and we came up with two points out of that possession.He did some very, very good things for us. “
It was obvious very early that the Gators game plan offensively was to try to battle the Wildcats in the paint by isolating Wilbekin in the pick and roll trying to get him in the lane for easy baskets or dishes to open shooters. For much of the game, however, the Wildcats did a great job shutting him down in the lane and the Gators couldn’t knock down shots. Scottie persevered though and was able to start getting better penetration as the game progressed.
“I thought we found a little bit better of an offensive rhythm there in the second half,” Donovan said. “We kind of weathered that first half offensively and found a little bit of a rhythm.”
The middle of the defense opened up late in the game as the Wildcats bigger line up wore down which allowed Scottie to get to the line and hit some clutch free throws down the stretch. He finished with a career high 23 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal.
“He (Wilbekin) did a really, really good job I thought … when we ran a lot of different actions. It was really no different than what John (Calipari) was doing with the Harrisons putting them in high pick and roll and letting those guys create and try to make some plays, we were kind of trying to do the same thing with Scottie. He was able to draw some fouls, he was able to get to the free throw line. That was important. He made a couple shots, he got the ball to some guys that made some plays. Then I thought coming down the stretch where it was a five or six point game, we got a couple of stops there that opened the game up for us. But Scottie being a point guard, certainly controlled and did a really, really good job.”
Coming in the Gators were very wary of the Wildcats ability to hit the offensive glass and get second chance points as they lead the league at 14.6 per game. That was the main focus defensively for the Gators and they did a fantastic job holding them to only 9 offensive rebounds and very few second chance points.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for our team and I’ve got a lot of respect for Kentucky,” Donovan said. “And you just don’t walk in here and just win because you get lucky. You have to play well and you’ve got to do some things in the game. And I thought some things that we did in the game, one, was we didn’t give up an enormous amount of offensive rebounds. They get about forty three percent of their misses back. That was really important. I thought that we did a really good job of shrinking the floor defensively and we made them take some long possessions defensively.”
It was an amazing rare road win at Rupp for the Gators. Not only has it been hard for the Gators but almost everyone to leave Rupp with a win. It is one of the toughest road venues in all of college basketball and the Gators have had their struggles there including last year when the Gators went without a field goal the last seven minutes of regulation before losing to the Wildcats.
“I think that even if you go back, Kentucky’s home record has been really astronomical,” Donovan said. “I think that the job that John has done here, what they’ve done here at home [has been great]. Being in the league as long as I’ve been in the league and even being here for five years, there’s no question this is maybe the hardest place in the country to play game in and game out. I think John certainly coming in here has been able to really, really build on a lot of that tradition there and he’s done an amazing job in terms of how well they’ve played here at home.”
It’s been impossible for this group of seniors who were o-3 at Rupp before last night’s victory. Being their last game in the arena made it all the more special for them as they continue to cement their legacy at Florida and are starting to be mentioned in the same breath as the ’04’s, as the back to back NCAA tourney winning teams were known. The significance wasn’t lost on Billy Donovan who congratulated his players but also warned not to take too much out of the victory.
“I was happy for those guys. The biggest thing is they never get a chance to come back here and play again so that was it for them. A lot of people don’t come in here and get wins but at the end of the day and the reality of this thing is it only counts as one win.”
Adding, “it’s one game, and how we move forward from this will be important. We obviously had two very challenging road games this week having to go into Tennessee and then obviously come here to Rupp. So, again, I’m happy for those guys because they won’t have an opportunity to play in a venue like this again.”
With 6 conference games remaining these Gators are gaining a lot of comparisons to the championship teams and have a legitimate shot to do something those teams could not-go undefeated in the SEC. Donovan for his part is downplaying both those comparisons.
“Someone asked me were there comparisons [with this team and the championship teams} and I think because of some of the things the guys have done, and certainly our tradition is not like Kentucky’s so some of the milestones in our program get referenced back to that group. And that group had three top ten players. Our talent level on that team was at a totally different level than this team. But I did say the comparison I would make is the way those guys tried to play for each other, the way they cared about each other there are some similarities that way but this group does not have that same level of talent that the other group had.”
He’s also downplaying the prospects of an easy ride the rest of the way towards an SEC title. He cautions that while a big victory is nice it has it’s own pitfalls in terms of expectations.
“I always say this every time you come out of a win or a loss there’s always residual effect that you’ve got to deal with,” Donovan said. “So for us coming off a week with two road games at Tennessee and here in Lexington, how do our guys respond from this going into next week. Having to go play against Auburn and then having to go on the road and play Mississippi. Where are we at right now? I like the direction we’re moving but I also am very, very guarded that a lot of times that stuff can change and different things can happen inside your team to kind of break that flow. So right now we’re moving in the right direction but we’ve got to keep moving in that direction.”]
The Gators do legitimately have a shot at an undefeated conference record and a top seed in the NCAA tourney but still have a tough match up with Ole Miss and a tough road game at Vanderbilt. For now, however, they have answered all the critics questions about a soft conference schedule with two consecutive tough road victories. Where they go from here remains to be seen but I like this teams fight, tenacity, resolve, and their prospects for the future. They are legitimate Final Four and NCAA tourney champions if they continue to get better each week as they have for the last two month.
With the victory, the Gators move to 23-2 tied for best start in Gator history with the 2006-07 team which opened 24-2. The Gators are 12-0 in the SEC with six conference games remaining. The Gators head home to the O’Dome to take on the Auburn Tigers on Wednesday. Tip off is scheduled for 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast by Sun Sports.