It started inauspiciously for the top ranked Florida Gators with Patrick Young missing a floating hook shot in front of the basket. But after a Casey Prather steal and offensive rebound on the other end, Michael Frazier hit a three point shot, a foreshadow of things to come. When it was over, Frazier had set a school and SEC record with 11, count em, 11 three point field goals finishing with a career high 37 points which carried the Gators to a huge road victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks 72-46 in Columbia, South Carolina. The Gators tied an SEC record with their 17th conference victory and extended their overall winning streak to 22, including 9 straight on the road.
With their second consecutive SEC title and third in four years already in the bag, the only drama left for these Gators was how well they would play in their last regular season road game, an area they’ve struggled mightily this season despite the winning streak. The answer was pretty darn good. Despite the Gators first half shooting woes, Frazier not withstanding, they turned up the defensive heat in the second half and rode Frazier’s hot hand to turn a close game into a rout.
The Gators jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead holding the Gamecocks scoreless for the first four minutes of the game as their stifling press forced four early South Carolina turnovers. The Gamecocks, however, recovered from the early deficit to take a small lead. They then kept it close throughout the first half by beating the Gators normally solid defense into the lane and crashing the offensive boards while the Gators settled for far too many perimeter shots by players not named Michael Frazier and were somewhat flat footed on the boards.
“I thought we really defended well in both halves,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterward. “I thought we really got hurt on the glass. Transition, they tipped a couple of balls in, they kept balls live. Their front court I think they had 15 points and 9 rebounds in the first half.
The Gators went into halftime clinging to a two point lead at 28-26 as the first half was a usual mixed bag for them. The Gators had settled for an unusually high number of perimeter shots which weren’t falling for any Gator other than Frazier repeatedly failing to work the ball into Patric Young in the post after featuring him early.
“I can’t really say that a lot of the threes we ended up taking were really bad,” Donovan said. “The only thing I was disappointed about us offensively in the first half was, we got the ball to Patric Young early in the half and he got off four or five shots. But he was one for four or five in the first half. But we weren’t balanced enough in my opinion.”
Additionally, while their defensive game plan which had focused on shutting down their two main inside-outside scorers Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams was highly effective it left the Gators vulnerable on the glass and the Gamecocks frontcourt players made them pay getting repeated second chance opportunities helping them keep pace with the Gators.
“The biggest thing we wanted to try to do with both of those guys [Thornwell and Williams] was one, not necessarily deny them all over the court, but we didn’t want to give them a lot of good looks. We wanted them to try to take a lot of tough two point shots. We thought if we could do that and be able to rebound the ball. Now what happened in the first half was because we gave those two guys so much attention what inevitably happened was it left their front court players free to really go to the glass and offensive rebound and we were having to rebound out of rotation which hurt us.”
The Gators also appeared to struggle matching South Carolina’s intensity and effort in the first half, repeatedly getting beaten to contested rebounds and loose balls which also gave them extra possessions and shot opportunities.
“They really kept themselves right there in the game on second chance opportunities. There were not a lot of free throws taken by both teams in the first half. But I thought the fifty-fifty balls, the loose balls, the balls that came off the rim, they were quicker, they were more active, they were more physical than we were in the first half.
Offensively, with the Gators other starters and bench players struggling from the field, Frazier kept the Gators in the game by scoring 15 of the Gators 28 first half points after draining five three point shots. He literally carried the Gators on his back.
“I thought we could have had a better offensive night,” Donovan said. “But no one from the line. Scottie Wilbekin’s 0 for 6, Doe Doe goes 0 for 2. Everybody else really from the three point line was an o-fer, except Frazier. He’s the only guy that made a three point shot.”
He was, however, just warming up.
The Gators opened the second half on an 11-2 run to take an 11 point lead five minutes in and it seemed the Gators might run away with it. However, South Carolina recovered to bring them within four at 39-35 on two Brenton Williams three pointers and a foul shot his first and only points of the game, due largely to another fine defensive performance by point guard Scottie Wilbekin. In Scottie’s defense, the first three pointer which led to a foul and four point play occurred while he was on the bench.
“We fouled him there on that one three point shot which we should have let him take it,” Donovan said. “It was a tough shot, it was off balance, and it’s one of those shots you’ve got to kind of tip your hat to him. Then he made a really hard one, pretty soon after that, over Wilbekin that was another three.”
Adding, “I thought Wilbekin worked as hard as he could and I thought everything that he did shoot was under duress. Even the three he got fouled on was an off-balance shot, the three he made over Wilbekin was a tough, off-balance shot. I didn’t feel like we gave him many clean, clear looks, he had to work for it. I think the biggest thing was we eliminated his number of shot attempts, that was important too.”
After that mini 7-0 Gamecock run was when Michael Frazier really went off and the Gators took total control of the basketball game.
The Gators went on an 18-0 run largely on the strength of Frazier’s dead eye perimeter shooting, offensive adjustments that got them into the lane and onto the free throw line more often, and their improved focus on rebounding.
“I thought in the second half, even though Michael made a lot of threes, we got to the free throw line a lot more than we did in the first half,” said Donovan. “We had a little bit more balance in and around the basket, we got some second chance opportunities, we got the ball back. We were a more balanced team I thought offensively than we were in the first half.”
He added, “I don’t know necessarily what the change was for us in the second half but we did a much, much better job of rebounding and eliminating some of those second chance points.”
By the time the Gamecocks looked up they faced a seeming insurmountable deficit. And South Carolina was never able to recover.
Frazier hit three from behind the arc during the run and then three more before it was over to finish 11-18 from three point range with a career high 37 points. For perspective sake, Frazier’s 37 was only nine short of South Carolina’s total points in the game. His stroke looked really good in pregame warmups and it seemed to carry over into the game for him.
“The ball felt good in warm ups, my shot looked good, felt good,” Frazier said. “Then in the game my teammates did a great job of finding me. I was able to get in a zone there, but I didn’t really feel anything, I was just there. The ball went in and my teammates did a great job of finding me.”
His teammates were more than eager to feed him the ball with how well he was not only knocking them down, but also getting open.
“It [Frazier’s high percentage shooting] was just good for us to be able to keep running our offense,” Patric Young said. “For us to get a Michael Frazier open three as many times as we can we want to get that. If we can get that 60 possessions out of a game we’ll live with that. We’re just really amazed by how open he was getting this whole game and the fact that he was knocking them down was helping us even more. And the fact that he was the only guy to finish in double figures, he carried our team today.”
When Frazier hit his eleventh and final three pointer of the game, the Gators were up 65-42 and it was all over but the crying for the Gamecock faithful who had come in with much promise still glowing from the after effects of a big win over Kentucky on Saturday but instead left dejected from the big loss.
Besides Frazier’s sharp-shooting, the Gators took control by once again playing solid, suffocating defense forcing 19 turnovers including a season high 17 steals and dishing out 16 assists.
“I thought South Carolina did a great job handling our press,” Donovan said. “They didn’t really turn the ball over, we got a couple of steals in the press. We got more steals with back pursuit, back tipping. We got our hands on some basketballs which was good. Of the nineteen turnovers we forced we seventeen were steals. That’s really kind of amazing in a way, because what happens is when there’s steals, it means it’s a live ball turnover which gives you an opportunity to fast break. And I thought in the second half some of those opportunities allowed Frazier to get loose and make some threes.”
The quick transitions off the steals and Frazier’s ability to get open and knock down shots also helped boost the Gators number of assists, finishing with 16.
“It kind of jumps out at you. You see all these numbers. The thing about it is we had sixteen assists which is not bad.”
Frazier wasn’t just a shooter in this one though for the Gators, he had an all around great game as well adding three rebounds, four steals, and one assist. Patric Young was the only other Gator player near double figures finishing with 9 points. He added two rebounds, two steals, an assist, and a blocked shot.
Overall, the Gators shot 42.4% (25-59) from the field and won the rebounding battle (38-34) dominating the second half glass after being minus nine in the first half on the boards. The Gators shot 35.5% (11-31) from three point range but outside of Frazier who was 11-18 , the other players were 0-13 from behind the arc.
With the victory the Gators moved to 28-2 on the season best opening record in school history and at 17-0 they tied the SEC record for conference wins in a season. The Gators can break that record with a win in the regular season finale versus Kentucky on Saturday. The Senior Day game will feature a ton of story lines and will be bittersweet for the Gators four senior starters who came in together in 2010 with much promise and go out as not only three time SEC champions, the only class in Gator history to accomplish that feat, but perhaps as undefeated conference champions and a lock to be a number one seed for only the second time in school history. If they do finish undefeated in conference play it would also be a first for a Gator team.
Tip off for Saturday’s game from the O’Connell Center is scheduled for 12:00 pm eastern time and will be broadcast nationally on CBS.