The Florida Gators basketball team finally put it all together on Saturday against the LSU Tigers. After struggling offensively for most of the season and especially the last few games, the Gators gave a glimpse of what happens when they make shots.
The Gators jumped out to a quick 8-0 lead and never let up dominating the overmatched Tigers 79-61 extending their school record home winning streak to 31 straight and their overall winning streak to 21, which also extends a school record as well.
As usual the Gators defense was suffocating and disruptive as they pressed the Tigers from start to finish and harrassed them into 15 turnovers never allowing the Tigers to get comfortable offensively in their halfcourt post game.
“I thought we did a really good job doubling the post,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “I thought the press was good, I thought we were disruptive defensively in the full court, I thought we were disruptive in the half court. I thought we did a good job on O’Bryant. I know he got 18 points but he was still 6 for 14 which was under fifty percent for a front court guy. We gave up some offensive rebounds to him but I thought our post traps were really, really good for most of the game. Overall we did a pretty good job I thought with our post traps.”
The Gator defense was so disruptive in the first half that the Tigers finished the half with as many turnovers as field goals (9).
Offensively, on the other hand, the Gators appeared to be more than comfortable hitting three of their first four shots from the floor including their first two three point shots and continuously firing away from long range as the Tigers struggled to defend the Gators from outside.
“What happened was they [LSU defense] got spread out sometimes and they got two guys underneath the basket and our guys were spaced and we had pretty much really good looks from behind the line and they went in for us,” Donovan said.
It’s not clear what was more surprising for the Gators in the first half- the number of three point shots they made or the number they took. For a team that averages 18 three point attempts per game, the Gators threw up 14 in the first half alone, draining nine which is more than they’ve made in any half this season.
“The one thing I was a little bit concerned about was I think at one point in time maybe with about six minutes to go in the first half over half of our shots had been threes,” Donovan said. “But we were six for ten from the line so we were shooting sixty percent which was great, but I still felt like we needed to have something at the basket too just to offset that. But there were so many threes that were available, I was just happy our guys shot the ball with confidence and it was good to see the ball go in the basket for those guys.”
Overall, the Gators hit 13-23 (56.5%) from behind the arc and 31-54 (57.4%) overall from the field. The Gators were led offensively by Dorian Finney-Smith who had 16 points on 50% shooting from the field (5-10, 4-8 from three) part of a strong bench effort by the Gators which outscored the Tiger bench 28-2.
” I thought we got really, really good minutes from our bench all the way around,” Donovan said.
Finney-Smith, after struggling offensively through a tough stretch has seemed to find himself the last two games. He led the team in scoring against both LSU and Vanderbilt with a combined 35 points in the two games on 8-16 (50%) shooting from beyond the three point line. Of all the Gator players who do different things, Finney-Smith is perhaps the most versatile player on the squad because he can do so many things.
“He stretches the defense,” “Donovan said of Finney-Smith. Doe-Doe has got the ability if you look at his stats in practice that he’s shot the ball well from behind the line he just went through a stretch there he didn’t. But I think as a coach, you want to stick with him because if you stick with him it gives him some confidence and then he can have some games like he’s had the last two games against Vanderbilt and this. And now from an offensive standpoint we probably get a little bit more of a power team with Yeguete and Young. And then when we bring him in we can really space the floor because he can put it on the ground, he can pass it, and he can shoot it. He’s a handful because he can offensive and defensive rebound. So when he’s shooting the ball like he did tonight it really opens up things for everybody.”
DeVon Walker also continued his stellar play of late in limited minutes off the bench hitting 2-3 three pointers for 6 points. He has really been showing an improved confidence and level of play of late.
“He’s been good,” Donovan said of Walker. “He was dealing with some migraine headaches before the game. He didn’t seem himself, but he’s played well. He’s getting better and better. I’ve got confidence in him. He played well at Ole Miss, he gave us a good boost, I thought he made a big three point shot in the second half against Vanderbilt the other night. And then I thought he gave us some good minutes here today.”
Another bench player who played well against LSU was freshman Chris Walker who had perhaps his best game for the Gators in his short career getting extended minutes and scoring two points with six rebounds and two blocked shots. The fourteen minutes he played was the most floor time he’s had since being cleared by the NCAA prior to the Missouri game.
“It was good to see Chris [Walker] be able to get some more minutes,” Donovan said. “This was a good game for him because LSU is a great high-low team offensively. They’ve got a lot of weapons but it’s pretty easy for Chris he’s going to be playing post defense or he’s going to be standing at the high post. I think that was a good game for him where he could maybe inject some of his athleticism, rebounding, and some of those things.”
Freshman point guard Kasey Hill also played very well chipping in four points, five assists, and two steals in his first game back from an ankle injury. It was easy to see why the Gators were missing him the last few games. His speed getting the ball up the floor in transition as well as his quickness and athleticism driving the ball into the lane and his passing abilities were all on display against LSU. He does appear to be more comfortable in the Gators offense than he did earlier in the season. Overall, the Gator bench got good minutes and asserted itself against LSU prompting the game announcer to make the statement that the Gators have four guys on the bench that could start for any other SEC program.
“I thought we were able to utilize our bench and kind of get everybody involved,” said Donovan. “I thought the minutes were distributed pretty well, and pretty balanced.”
Considering where the Gators were early in the season, struggling to find enough bodies to scrimmage in practice and reeling from a lack of depth in games, the strong bench effort against LSU came at a good time as the Gators close out the regular season and prepare for tournament play.
“You want to be playing well this time of year,” Donovan said.
You also want to know who you can count on from the bench. On Saturday, the Gators found a deep and talented bench playing with improved confidence both offensively and defensively.
It wasn’t only the bench, however, who did the damage for the Gators. Michael Frazier hit 4-6 (66.7%) from three point range finishing with 14 points while Casey Prather went 6-7 from the field and also scored 14 points. Frazier also had 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and a steal. Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin finished with 11 points, 2 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals.
It was a strong, dominant, and, perhaps even more importantly, complete effort from start to finish both offensively and defensively. One of the Gators biggest issues throughout the season, besides the shooting woes, has been their inability to play a complete game. While, they have been winning, 21 straight at this point, they have struggled somewhat in the first or second half of games. They’ve struggled to maintain focus and struggled to maintain a consistent effort for a full forty minute game. Not in this one though. Against LSU, the Gators started strong and maintained their focus, effort, and intensity throughout taking a 16 point halftime lead and pushing it to as much as 22 throughout the second half before bringing in scrubs with three minutes remaining.
“I think going into this last week or so… we hadn’t really put two halves together,” Donovan said. “And I think our guys, at least our older guys, are mature enough that when you make those points to them and bring those things up to them they’re pretty good at listening to what you’re saying and I think when you back it up as a coach in terms of what you’re talking about they have good buy-in-ability to say ok these are things we need to get better at. In practice, those are things we tried to work on to get better at.”
It appeared to pay off, at least for one game. Before Saturday’s game, Donovan had challenged his team to see how they would respond to this three game stretch of sub-par play.
“I told our guys that this was going to be a game that we were going to really find out a little bit more about ourselves in terms of how we were going to respond,” Donovan said. “What kind of commitment we were going to make to make improvements in areas that we needed to improve on.”
They seemed to respond as well as Donovan could have hoped. The long SEC schedule can be brutal especially for a team seemingly chasing it’s own tail.
“The hardest part for our guys I think has been over the last two weeks is emotionally getting to a level-physically we’re fine- but it is an emotional grind every day and getting themselves ready to that level I think is the challenging piece for our team,” said Donovan.
It’s all about getting through the grind and finding challenges to chase and not getting caught up in the hoopla surrounding a number one ranking or undefeated conference season or home winning streaks.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve tried to get across is that when you get to this point in time of the season, you don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something,” Donovan said.
“Once you get into trying to avoid things and trying to prevent things from happening, I think inevitably you get tight, you get frozen, you don’t play. And the biggest things for us I’ve tried to explain to our guys is there are things out there for us to chase.”
“Tonight these guys broke the single season number of wins during a regular season of any team in the history of this program. That to me is a significant milestone. So they’re chasing something right now. There’s two games remaining right now, it’s an 18 game league schedule, there’s an opportunity for them to come back and continue on with what they’re doing. So there’s opportunity for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated, focused, and excited during this stretch here because we’ve got seven days left.”
And for one day they did it perfectly according to plan. With two games left in the regular season and then the SEC and NCAA tournaments upcoming, hopefully they’re peaking and can continue with their stellar across the board play.
With the win the Gators moved to 16-0 in the SEC setting a new school record for conference wins in a season as well as tying the SEC record for regular season conference victories.
Next up for the Gators is a trip to South Carolina on Tuesday before wrapping up the regular season at home against Kentucky next Saturday. Tip off for the South Carolina game is 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast on ESPNU.