Perhaps only in baseball does the “Mighty Casey” strikeout.
Not in basketball.
Not Saturday afternoon in the O’Connell Center with conference supremacy hanging in the balance.
Nope. In that situation, the “Mighty Casey” hits a hoops version homerun.
Florida rode the coattails of an unlikely hero — Casey Prather — to overcome a sluggish performance and an 8-point deficit, and surged past Alabama by a 64-52 score.
“I thought the guy that changed the game for us, in my opinion, was Casey Prather. I thought putting him in the game injected some excitement, some emotion, some enthusiasm,” Donovan told IMG Sports Network following the game.
And the Gators needed every bit of it.
With less than 12 minutes remaining and trailing 45-37, Florida appeared sluggish. Prather entered, and provided not only the needed jolt, but also instant offense. During the ensuing four minutes he found Patric Young on an alley-oop, hit a spinning layup, snared a rebound and drilled 4 consecutive free throws— the last of which provided the Gators a lead it would not relinquish.
“Casey, I think, just went in there and played within himself. He didn’t bomb shots. He got some good plays. He made some scores. He got some stops. He rebounded. He did a lot of really good things for us. He was phenomenal in the game,” Donovan said.
Prather finished 10 points and 9 rebounds. For much of the contest, however, his teammates were something less than phenomenal.
“We didn’t rebound. We were a step slow. Alabama looked like they really came to play the game and we did not look that way at all,” Donovan said.
Florida conceded 13 offensive rebounds, but perhaps the most frustrating statistic for Donovan was a mere 7 assists. That, coupled with 10 turnovers, contributed to a sputtering offense and an uphill battle.
“Mike Rosario, Kenny Boynton, Scottie Wilbekin—our backcourt is older. It’s veteran. They have been through it. But I told our guys that until they play the right way on offense and really are more consumed with making the guy next to them better— we will have games like this,” Donovan said.
‘Games like this’ may not be good for the nerves of Gator fans— and perhaps not for its coach, either.
“I have never gone through that level of emotion as a coach. I was so disappointed, and I think I referenced that to Mark at halftime. Just our energy, the way we were playing. We were a step slow, a step late” Donovan said. “And then to be so proud of them persevering and showing some resiliency when down 8 and not giving up and battling and fighting to get back into the game”.
Florida not only fought back, but knocked out Alabama with a 17-2 run. It was spurt aided by free throw shooting, something that had previously ailed the Gators. Facing its largest deficit, Florida drilled 13 consecutive free throws to close the contest, and finished converting 22 of 26 from the foul line.
“That was a good thing, and we did good job getting the ball inside,” Donovan said.
But no sooner than he offered praise, Florida’s coach reiterated a season-long frustration.
“At one point we had an 11 point lead— it was 10-2 in points in the paint. And we finished the first half 18-10. We don’t score another point in the paint,” Donovan lamented. “And it’s just an intelligence and understanding of how we need to play. And some of our guys don’t see it. They don’t see it. And they have not bought into it. I have got to get them to buy into it and do what we’re asking them to do”.
Though quick to critique, Donovan also shouldered some blame for what he considered a less-than-stellar performance in a critical home contest.
“And now you are coming to the end of this journey right now, and its right here in front of you and we didn’t handle that moment very well. And I probably, as a coach, didn’t prepare them for that moment well enough. So I have to take some responsibility too. But our team looked drained and exhausted and a step slow,” Donovan said.
If exhausted, the Gators could hardly be faulted. After nearly an entire season of battling injuries and playing shorthanded, Florida finally returned its full complement of players. Most notable among the recovered was junior forward Will Yeguete, who made an earlier than expected debut following knee surgery less than a month ago.
“After the game he said he was petrified. He was so scared. Not scared of his knee, but just that he hadn’t played in a while,” Donovan said. “This was good for him to get thrown into a game like this and find a way to help our team. And he did do that today”.
As the season moves to the post season, a healed Florida team is one that may petrify its opposition. Especially is it heeds the words of its coach and the lessons of a grueling game.
“The valuable lesson in all of this is that you have got to stay locked in and focused,” Donovan stressed.