#1 Gators clinch share of SEC championship

The relentless pursuit of greatness for Florida’s seniors was nearly sidetracked Tuesday night in Nashville, where Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym magic almost derailed another notch in the Gators’ history belt. When Dorian Finney-Smith hit the free throw to convert a 3-point play with 13:51 remaining that gave Florida a 45-33 lead, it seemed the only thing missing was the fork. Vanderbilt was all but done.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the blowout. Vanderbilt found the range from the 3-point line, Florida’s offense went south and the #1-ranked Gators (26-2, 15-0 SEC) were forced to sweat out a 57-54 win that wasn’t decided until Kyle Fuller missed a 3-pointer with four seconds to go.

Florida’s 20th straight win earned the Gators at least a piece of the Southeastern Conference championship, the third SEC title in the four years on campus for seniors Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. Twenty wins in a row adds to the school record. Getting three SEC titles in four years is something no other Florida senior class has ever accomplished.

But it almost didn’t happen because inexplicably, Florida lost its way offensively at the same time Vanderbilt yanked out the life support tubes and started draining 3-pointers.

Florida held a 45-35 lead at the under-12 media time out with 11:31 to go in the game. That’s when Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings switched the Commodores to a 2-3 zone that seemed to suck the life out of Florida’s offensive rhythm. When everyone else went stone cold, Finney-Smith and DeVon Walker emerged as unlikely heroes, combining to score 10 of Florida’s last 12 points.

Averaging only 2.9 points per game, Walker had his third straight game with two 3-pointers. It was his second 3-ball of the game with 5:38 to go that stretched Florida back to an 8-point lead at 53-50

Mired in a shooting slump that saw him miss 22 consecutive 3-pointers during one stretch, Finney-Smith found himself all alone at the top of the key, took a pass from Wilbekin and drained a confident 3-pointer with 30.6 seconds remaining to put the Gators up 57-52.

“We really did a great job on that last possession when we ran some screening action and took some time off the clock,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said in his post game remarks on the Gator Radio Network. “We got a roll and replace and Scottie found him [Finney-Smith] and that was really a huge shot for us.”

Vanderbilt had trimmed 10 points off Florida’s 12-point lead when Finney-Smith came through. He got wide-open looks throughout the game in part because Florida’s ball screening action was so good, but also because Vanderbilt was willing to take a chance by letting him loose while trying to lock down on Wilbekin and Michael Frazier.

It was a gamble that didn’t pay off as Finney-Smith hit 3-6 from the 3-point line to finish the game with 19 points to go with a game-high nine rebounds. It was the first game in double figures for Finney-Smith since an 11-point effort against Texas A&M on February 1.

“We really needed it and it was good to see him (Finney-Smith) break out,” Donovan said. “He hit multiple 3-point shots. He’s getting really good looks. We’re running some actions where he’s going to get some really good looks. So much when Patric is rolling to the basket they have to account for him and he’s getting it up there at the top of the key. He obviously made a big three to put us up by five there.”

Florida wasn’t the only team with unlikely heroes. When the Commodores were all but dead in the water, Luke Kornet, a 7-0 freshman who was hitting 22% from the 3-point line for the season, sandwiched a pair of  deep 3-pointers around a contested 3-ball by Rod Odom to fuel a 12-3 Vanderbilt run. That brought the Commodores from the brink of the bad end of a blowout  to within three (48-45) with 7:47 to go in the game.

“We really had good control of the game and then Kornet comes in off the bench for them and that had a big impact on the game as did Odom,” Donovan said.

Florida was able to briefly quell the Vanderbilt momentum when Yeguete got a layup off the baseline off a nice pass from Wilbekin with 7:17 to go and Walker buried his 3-pointer with 5:38 left, also off a Wilbekin assist, that made it 53-45.

The Gators squandered two possessions and Vanderbilt got a Damian Jones jump hook, a layup and free throw by Fuller to trim the Florida margin to 53-50. After Finney-Smith hit the first of two foul shots with 2:42 to go for a 54-50 lead, the Gators missed an opportunity to stretch the lead with a botched possession that ended with Wilbekin heaving a two-hand desperation three to beat the shot clock with 1:11 to go. At the other end, Fuller got fouled and hit two foul shots with 1:00 left to bring the Commodores back to 54-52.

That set up what proved to be the game-winner by Finney-Smith, but that didn’t prevent the Commodores from making it interesting. Fuller got a layup to cut the lead back to three with 18.7 seconds remaining. On the ensuing possession, Wilbekin was able to kill 8.7 seconds off the clock before Vanderbilt fouled him. Nails at the foul line the last four games, Wilbekin came up short on the front end of the one-and-one giving Vanderbilt its last chance.

The game turned into a white knuckles affair because the Gators also blew chances to turn the game into a rout in the first half. Florida went on a 13-0 run to double up the Commodores at 22-11 with 8:33 to go when Frazier popped in a 3-pointer, but the Gators went stagnant and Vandy got back in it from the 3-point line, cutting the margin to four on two occasions before the half ended with the Gators ahead, 32-25.

The win brings to a close Florida’s most treacherous stretch of basketball during the conference portion of the schedule. This was the fourth road game in the last five outings for the Gators, who surprisingly came through unscathed.

“We’ve had to play four of our last five [on the road] and everybody looked at our schedule and said this is the toughest stretch you have by far during the season, maybe going back to December when we had to play Kansas and Memphis and maybe Connecticut … that was a stretch there, “ Donovan said. “But you talk about these kids going on the road – at Tennessee, at Kentucky, home against Auburn, at Ole Miss and at Vandy – and coming away undefeated? We’re like any other team. There’s not a large margin for error. For our team to find ways to win games, I’m really proud of him.

I’m also proud of the fact that they also get at least a part of an SEC championship. For our seniors, that’s three out of four years – never been done in our school history. I think we’re all grateful for those four guys and what they’ve been able to do up to this point in time.”

GAME NOTES:  The Gators can clinch the SEC championship outright with a sin Saturday against LSU at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center … Young was the only Gator beside Finney-Smith to score in double figures with 12. Young had seven rebounds including six on the offensive end … Casey Prather was held to two points, but he contributed six rebounds, three assists, four steals and one blocked shot … Wilbekin only scored seven points but finished with five assists and only one turnover … The Gators scored 16 points off 17 Vanderbilt turnovers … The Gators outrebounded Vanderbilt, 32-26 … The Gators outscored the Commodores 13-1 on second chance points.



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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.