Georgia began the game against Florida shooting free throws, and the Bulldogs ended it shooting free throws after a furious late rally by the Gators came up short in Athens, Ga.
Casey Prather gifted Georgia (13-15 overall, 4-10 in Southeastern Conference play) two free throws by getting called for a technical for dunking in warm-ups with less than 30 minutes until the game began, and Florida (22-7, 10-4 SEC) never led in a 76-62 loss.
“I question the passion, just the passion to play and compete and what goes in,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said on the Gator Radio Network. “Are we willing to take the hard road to get a road victory?”
The Gators played their first game since backup sophomore forward Will Yeguete broke his foot against the Auburn Tigers on Tuesday.
Florida was never able to get in sync without him, despite doing a solid job on the glass. The Gators outrebounded the Bulldogs 33-28, but finished shooting just 36.7 percent from the floor and 21.7 percent from three-point range.
“You hope, as a coach, after the Auburn game when you get that upset and irate that they’re just out of gas and they’re giving you everything you’ve got, but there’s nothing left in the tank,” Donovan said. “We should have had more than plenty in the tank today.”
As poorly as Florida played Saturday, the Gators made things interesting late in the game, cutting a 16-point deficit to just five with 1:51 remaining.
Senior point guard Erving Walker scored six straight points before Kenny Boynton knocked down a crucial three to cut Georgia’s lead to five, but it was too little, too late for Florida.
A freshman mistake from guard Brad Beal ended Florida’s comeback attempt. With one second left on the shot clock and Georgia going after a loose ball near mid-court, Beal slammed into Dustin Ware going after the ball to send him to the line with 1:17 left.
Instead of getting the ball back with a chance to make it a one-possession game, Florida watched Ware sink both free throws – and the Gators chances at clinching a first-round SEC Tournament bye with a win.
“I would say [Beal] was a very bright spot for our team,” Donovan said. “I felt like he was out there trying to give it his all. It’s your team, (though). You can’t have just one guy doing it, you have to have everyone doing it.”
Georgia did a good job controlling the paint in the early going, taking a 14-0 advantage in points in the paint to start the game. It took Florida more than 13 minutes score in the paint, when Erik Murphy put one in off the glass.
Florida’s offense played a perimeter-oriented game with a lot of dribble-drives early on to kick out to open three-point shots. Murphy, Beal and guard Mike Rosario combined to go 0-12 from downtown, and the Gators finished 5-23 from the arc.
“We could have had anything we wanted offensively all night long, but we wanted to take a little bit of an easy road,” Donovan said. “We didn’t wait on screens, we tried to outrun their coverage defensively. They were just so much more on edge, sharper, physical, ready.”
Georgia, meanwhile, made just about everything. The Bulldogs got out in transition for a handful of and-1 plays, and Georgia controlled the game on the offensive end of the floor with putbacks and fastbreak points.
“That team in Georgia was 3-10 in the league, a team last in the league in field-goal percentage, in offensive field goal percentage,” Donovan said. “(They) shoot 53 percent against us, and we shoot 36. Just not ready to play or not passionate enough to play.”
Beal finished with a game-high 19 points and 12 rebounds, while Walker finished with 14 points and Boynton chipped in 11.Young pulled down 11 rebounds in the game.
Donovan, who went after the team hard in the locker room at halftime of the Auburn game following a sloppy start to the game, put some of the blame on himself for not being able to get the team ready to play.
However, the 16th-year Florida coach said he believes like he’s getting to a point that he’s done all he can.
“It gets to a point, too, where you feel like you’re pulling and pleading for guys to play hard and play with passion,” he said. “I think that you have a passion inside you or you don’t.”
Florida will return to action at Vanderbilt at 9 p.m. on Tuesday before hosting Kentucky in the season finale on March 4. Despite the loss to Georgia, Florida clinched a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament due to other league results.
For the Gators, figuring out a way to show up in Nashville, Tenn., with more passion than they did in Athens will be crucial.
“The hardest part is for me, how do I instill the passion in them that I want them to play with?” Donovan said. “That’s the hard part is trying to figure that out.”