TALLAHASSEE — With ten minutes remaining in the game and the Florida Gators down by 13 points to an energized Florida State team, Coach Billy Donovan made a conscious decision to send a message to his veteran starters. He yanked Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey and inserted his four freshmen to play the next couple of minutes with Walter Hodge running the point.
Donovan chose to let his four veterans stew on the bench for a couple of minutes while the young guys tried to hold off the upset-minded Seminoles. By the time the veterans got back in the game, there had been an attitude adjustment but it was too little and too late. Florida mounted a spirited comeback but the fourth-ranked Gators not only came up on the short end of a 70-66 score but they had to endure Florida State’s fans storming the court to celebrate a win over the 2006 national champions.
For much of the game the Gators were outhustled on both ends of the floor. Florida State played the aggressor from the opening tip. The game plan was to play the Gators tough and physical and it worked. They pushed and they shoved. They moved the Gators out of their comfort zone. FSU wanted a physical game to offset the size advantage of Horford and Noah on the inside.
Every time the Gators tried to get the ball in the paint, especially in the first half, the Seminoles swarmed around Horford and Noah. There was plenty of contact and plenty of rooting the Gator big men off the low blocks but when Horford and Noah looked to Gary Maxwell, Roger Ayers and Doug Sirmons for a kind whistle there were very few offered.
The strategy worked to perfection. The Seminoles completely neutralized the 6-11 Noah and 6-10 Horford with 6-7 Al Thornton and 6-8 Uche Echefu. Noah came on strong at the end to finish with 11 points but he grabbed only four rebounds and never blocked a shot. Horford took only two shots (made them both) and grabbed only six rebounds before he fouled out at the end.
Thornton, meanwhile, took the Gators to school. He finished with a game-high 28 points and nine rebounds. Thornton was lethal from the outside and too much for the Gators to control on the inside. At times it appeared that he could score at will. Echefu wasn’t much of a contributor on the offensive end (just three points) but he did a good job of locking up Noah and Horford down low and forcing them away from the basket.
Florida’s lack of physical retaliation only emboldened Florida State. The Seminoles were clearly the aggressors much the same way Kansas took it to the Gators in Las Vegas over Thanksgiving weekend.
“I think that that is very similar to the Kansas game,” said Donovan. “I don’t know if you want to call it physicalness or whatever it is but they certainly were a lot more aggressive than we were in my opinion.”
The physical nature of the Seminoles defense took an early toll on the Gators. Florida’s 11 first half turnovers helped the Seminoles take a 36-31 halftime lead and the Gators started the second half with three consecutive turnovers without getting a single shot off.
“We dug ourselves a hole in the first half with our turnovers,” said Donovan.
The first eight to ten minutes of the second half weren’t much more than a repeat of the things that happened in the first half. Thornton was unstoppable and the Seminoles seemed to beat the Gators to nearly every loose ball and rebound as they built their lead to as many as 15 points (58-43) on a Jason Rich three-ball with 8:40 remaining in the game.
When Donovan finally tired of the lack of intense effort from his team, he benched his veterans, sending in the freshmen to work with Hodge for about three minutes.
“I sat some of our older guys and played some of our younger guys and let them [the veterans] spectacle for a little bit,” said Donovan. “We tried to turn it on at the end and that wasn’t good enough. For whatever reason, our energy level wasn’t good. I don’t know why it wasn’t good for the first 32 minutes.”
In the final eight minutes, Florida put together a concerted effort that nearly turned the game around. Down 59-47 when the vets got back in the game, Florida got aggressive on both ends of the court. Hodge scored 10 of his 17 points down the stretch as the closed the gap to two points (68-66) with 53.2 seconds left in the game.
The Gators actually had a chance to win the game with seven seconds left in the game but Green’s three from the right wing was blocked by Toney Douglas. In the scramble for the loose ball, Horford fouled Thornton who calmly knocked down two free throws with four seconds remaining to ice the game.
Donovan wasn’t particularly happy with the shot selection in that final sequence. One of the reasons the Seminoles were able to challenge Green’s shot was because the ball never went inside first. Donovan would have preferred that the ball went inside to Noah or Horford and then back outside if the defense collapsed.
“I thought he took — maybe at that time there were maybe 7-8 seconds left in the game — an ill-advised three,” said Donovan, who added that “if the three we took was open I would not have had a problem taking the three but the shot that we took was not a good one.”
Donovan said the outcome of the game emphasizes that the time has come for his team to make a decision about how they want to play the game this year. Florida is clearly lacking the kind of intensity that carried the Gators on their national championship run back in March and that is something that Donovan says needs to change now.
“I think our guys have got to make a decision to the commitment of a level we want to play at and I don’t know that we’ve made that commitment to level we need to play at so I’m not surprised necessarily at what happened,” he said. “They need to, in my opinion, make a conscientious decision what kind of physical commitment they are going to make to playing the game. I think it starts with our older guys and hopefully they’ll make that commitment that is necessary.”
What particularly irked Donovan was the way the Gators have been outhustled the last two games they’ve played against big time opponents.
“I think that the last two games that we’ve played against where there have been teams from a major conference — the Big 12 and here, the ACC — it appeared to me on the floor that those teams were more committed to making winning basketball plays than we were committed to making winning basketball plays,” said Donovan. “What I mean by winning basketball plays is blocking out, rebounding, taking a charge, screening somebody, defending … things that are in your control. There were a lot of things that were in our control tonight that we didn’t make the commitment to doing at the highest level in my opinion.”