After enduring a second half in which his team got outscored, outhustled and outplayed by Jacksonville University Thursday night, Coach Billy Donovan chastised his team in the post-game locker room. Donovan felt the Gators went on autopilot in the second half and they spent 20 minutes just going through the motions. He was determined that was not going to happen two straight games.
So when the Gators took the floor against the Tennessee-Chattanooga Mocs Saturday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, there was definitely a different level of focus and determination, particularly on the defensive end. Florida held the Mocs to 38.6 percent shooting from the floor and only 25 percent from the foul line as they improved to 4-0 with a 93-44 win in front of a crowd of 11,964.
Florida’s focused, tough defensive play Saturday night was in stark contrast to the JU game where the Dolphins outscored Florida 41-34 in a sloppy second half that lacked any defensive intensity by the Gators. In the locker room after the game, Donovan called his team out and reminded them that they can be their own worst enemy by allowing complacency to kick in.
“Coach said what he had to say after the game and he left it up to us to come out and not let it happen again,” said point guard Taurean Green, who had 11 points and five assists.
At practice Friday Green said Donovan didn’t have remind the team that they had to pick it up on the defensive end. Donovan was pleased that his team took responsibility for its own actions and did something about it.
“The thing that was encouraging coming back on Friday was Al Horford and Joakim and those guys took responsibility and they needed to,” said Donovan.
Responsibility in Friday’s practice translated into intensity in Saturday night’s game. The Mocs came into the game averaging 33 three-point shot attempts per game, led by Kedric Mays, who was averaging 14 three-point attempts and 22 points per game. Florida limited UTC to 20 three-point attempts, 13 below their norm, and Mays was held to five three-pointers.
“And three of those were Hail Marys,” said Donovan.
Mays went 1-5 from the three-point line. He scored only five points.
Florida neutralized UTC’s perimeter game with a game plan that was designed to force the Mocs out of their comfort range. When the Mocs could get a three-pointer off, it was usually two to three feet behind the line and it was rare that a UTC shooter got an uncontested look.
Early on, however, the Mocs were looking pretty good behind the line. Ricky Hood hit three three-pointers in a row to keep UTC within shouting distance in the first 12 minutes of the game. But that’s when things went very bad for the Mocs.
In the final 7:56 of the first half, the Gators held the Mocs to a single free throw by Khalil Hartwell as Florida stretched a 27-18 lead to a comfortable 37-19 margin at the half. The defensive pressure didn’t subside in the first eight minutes of the second half, either. Nicchaeus Doaks got a jumper to go down at the 19:04 mark but that would be the last time UTC would score until there were less than 12 minutes to go in the game.
Florida outscored UTC 25-2 in the first eight minutes of the second half including a 23-0 run that stretched the lead to 62-21 when Humphrey hit his fifth three-pointer of the game with 12:17 remaining.
While UTC was struggling to score against the Gators, Florida was finding ways to beat the Mocs’ aggressive double-teams that were designed to take Horford and Noah out of the game. The two big guys came into the game averaging 31 points per game between them, but on this night they were held in check. Noah scored eight points and Horford scored seven but points couldn’t measure what they did to get the Florida offense going.
When the ball went into the post and the Mocs collapsed two and three defenders around the ball, the big guys kicked it out and Florida found open shooters on the perimeter. Lee Humphrey turned in his best shooting night of the young season by hitting five of seven three-pointers.
“I got great looks,” said Humphrey. “Our post men passed it so well coming out of the trap.”
Humphrey led the Gators with 15 points while Corey Brewer had 13 and Green 11. That the scoring load was taken by the perimeter players was a stark contrast to the first three games when the Gators were dominant on the inside.
“Teams are going to try to take away certain things and it was obvious in the first htree game that with what Noah and Horford did, and even Chris Richard, you’re saying we’re going to take away their front court and let’s see what they can do,” said Donovan. “Our guys stepped up and answered the bell tonight.”
Brewer said that when the Gators are playing unselfishly, they’re a very difficult team to beat because they have plenty of weapons at their disposal.
“If you take our big guys out we can still beat you,” he said. You take our guards out our big guys will kill you.”
Donovan emptied the bench with about five minutes remaining in the game, turning it over to freshmen and walkons and the young guys didn’t disappoint. Donovan said he got on the freshmen hard at Friday’s practice for their so-so effort against Jacksonville, but they were sharper, focused and definitely more intense defensively against UTC.
Freshman forward Jonathon Mitchell got 16 minutes of playing time off the bench and he responded with seven points, five rebounds and four steals while freshman center Marreese Speights scored six points and grabbed six rebounds in only eight minutes of playing time. Altogether, Donovan got 16 points, 12 rebounds three assists and four steals from his freshmen.
The Gators shot 54.2 percent from the field for the game, 45.2 percent from the three-point line.
Florida returns to action Tuesday night at the O’Connell Center against Prairie View A&M.