After two road straight games in which he described Florida’s wins over Auburn and Alabama as “we won the battle but we lost the war,” Billy Donovan wanted his 6th-ranked Gators to play with a sense of desperation – desperation as in winning the hustle plays, getting to loose balls, getting to the double team on time and rotating properly to cut off passing lanes to the shooters.
Desperation as in starting to play like a team with championship aspirations.
“Coach had this reoccurring theme of being desperate – being desperate as if this is a championship game and each possession is a championship possession,” is how Patric Young described Florida’s mindset coming into Saturday’s game with the Tennessee Vols at the sold-out Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
This wasn’t a championship game, but the Gators (17-2, 6-0 SEC) played the way a championship team is supposed to play, particularly on the defensive end where they locked down the Vols and turned what was expected to be a white knuckler into a 67-41 blowout before a crowd of 12,475.
This is what desperate looked like:
The Vols only scored 19 first half points and just 22 in the second half.
Tennessee was 5.3% from the 3-point line on 1-19 shooting.
The Vols were 15-56 overall from the field (26.8%).
Take away the 6-9 shooting effort that resulted in 16 points by Jarnell Stokes and the Vols were 9-47 from the field and good for 25 points.
Jordan McRae, an All-SEC performer last year who came into the game averaging 19.2 per game, went 1-15 from the field and scored only five points.
“I don’t know if Jordan McRae is the top scorer, but he’s top five in our league,” Young said. “When you can hold him to five points and he gets frustrated and their coach has to take him out, then your team did something right.”
Doing something right meant challenging McRae and keeping him from hitting a couple of confidence-building shots early on. He was 1-9 in the first half and was 1-6 in the second when Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin pulled him out of the game.
“I thought we made him take some tough shots early,” Donovan said. “I thought outside the one play when we gave him a three – DeVon Walker got hung up on a screen and gave him a fairly decent look – outside of that I thought most of the shots we made him take were really difficult. He didn’t have a lot of wide open looks. Most of the shots were challenged.”
The Gators challenged shots. That is the best thing you could say about their defensive effort and it all started with Donovan demanding that they play with more focus, effort and intensity on the defensive end. The two previous games – road wins last week when they allowed 61 points to Auburn and 62 to Alabama – were the learning lab. Florida won both games but didn’t come anywhere close to playing at the level he expects or that the Gators capable of playing.
So he challenged them Friday at practice to take their game up a notch.
“I told our guys coming out of Auburn and coming out of Alabama that we won the battle and lost the war,” Donovan said. “What I meant by that was I thought our team – in terms of a standard that I want to see our guys play up to not that we’re going to be perfect – we lost that war. The outcome was a W against those two teams on the road but we didn’t play to the level of expectations that I feel we could play at defensively. Our numbers proved that out. Our breakdowns proved that out. There were times when we were just very mediocre and sometimes we were very good but there was a level of consistency that wasn’t very good.”
The consistency was there against Tennessee.
When the Vols tried to get the ball inside to their power guys – Stokes, who is 6-8, 260, and Jeronne Maymon, also 6-8 and 260 – the Gators collapsed the defense and made life very difficult with double and sometimes triple teams that made passing impossible and turned power up moves into exhausting shows of strength.
On those occasions when the Vols got someone open on the perimeter, the shots were rushed because it was rare when a Gator wasn’t running full tilt at the shooter.
And then there was the press. It didn’t force that many turnovers, but it changed the tempo of the game and forced the Vols to play at Florida’s pace.
On the offensive end, the Gators weren’t spectacular but they were efficient. They hit 26-54 from the field, a respectable 48.1%, and they were just good enough shooting the 3-ball to stretch Tennessee’s defense.
Michael Frazier, who killed Alabama with five 3-point daggers, was 3-6 from long distance, but he expanded his game, scoring twice on drives to the basket and adding 4-4 from the foul line as part of a 17-point effort that led all scorers. Frazier also added another dimension by finding Patric Young, once on a first half cut and the second time on an alley-oop off the dribble, for a pair of vicious dunks.
It was a far cry from last Saturday when Frazier was good for a donut against Auburn.
“That’s what happens when you have a double threat like that when you can drive or you can shoot the ball,” Frazier said. “You keep them on your toes. That’s what happened tonight. I was able to get down the lane a couple of times and then I was able to get an open shot.”
Help came from Scottie Wilbekin (13 points), Casey Prather (12), Young (10) and Dorian Finney-Smith (9). It was the kind of balanced scoring that Donovan wanted and combined with the defensive effort it was the kind of game that Donovan sees as his team’s identity.
And what is the Gators’ identity? It is about pressing and playing sound defense in the half court. It’s about being disciplined enough to carry out assignments and to share the ball offensively.
It’s also about playing with a sense of desperation.
“You have to create these kind of situations where you’ve got to be desperate and a lot of times you have to be desperate each situation,” Donovan said. “Human nature is you can get a little complacent and look at the scoreboard. We need to play with a little bit more desperation. I don’t think the last two games we’ve played with much desperation. Today we did a lot better job of being desperate. It’s a loose ball. It’s a hustle play. It’s getting where you’re supposed to be. It’s being on time on a post trap. It’s the ball goes up and it’s kind of bobbled around and you dive head first.
“It’s a gift to be desperate. It’s a gift. That’s the one thing we talked about with our guys and I thought our guys played like that.”
GAME NOTES: Prather scored in double figures for the 17th time this season. His 12 points give him 285 this season. He scored 276 in the 90 games he played his first three seasons at Florida … The win over Tennessee broke a 3-game losing streak to the Vols. Billy Donovan had never beaten Cuonzo Martin until this game … Finney-Smith led Florida with eight rebounds … In addition to his 16 points, Stokes pulled down 10 rebounds.