It is glaringly apparent that Michael Frazier is at his best when facing north when the 3rd-ranked Florida Gators play at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. How else can you explain that he can’t seem to shoot a lick at the south end in the first half of games but lights it up at the north end in the second half? In Florida’s last three home games – wins over Tennessee, Texas A&M and Missouri – Frazier is 1-14 shooting 3-pointers at the south end basket in the first half, but he’s a collective 9-12 shooting 3-balls at the north end.
It happened again Tuesday night. Frazier, who was 0-6 in the first half of last Saturday’s win over Texas A&M only to go 3-3 in the second half, couldn’t get a shot to drop in the first half against Missouri. He was 0-4 and two of the four defied gravity. They did everything but find the bottom of the net.
Yet, when he turned around and faced north, he started making shots and when that happened, Florida’s fortunes turned completely around. Frazier hit four second half 3-pointers including three during a decisive 14-3 run that propelled the Gators (20-2, 9-0 SEC) to a 68-58 win over Missouri (16-6, 4-5 SEC) before a rowdy crowd of 12,123 at the O-Dome.
The win was significant because it not only kept the Gators unbeaten in SEC play and two full games ahead of second place Kentucky, but it extended Florida’s winning streak to 14 games overall and 28 straight at the O-Dome. It was also the 20th win for head coach Billy Donovan, who extended his Southeastern Conference record streak of 20-win seasons to 16.
After a first half in which Donovan described Frazier as “wiped out,” the sophomore guard saw his confidence returning when he knocked down his first 3-pointer of the game with 13:57 to go to tie the game at 35-35. It was 45-45 with 8:59 to go when he knocked down two in a row to stake the Gators to a 51-45 lead. Missouri countered with an end of the shot clock three from Wesley Clark to bring the Tigers back within three, but that was as close as they ever got. Frazier drilled another 3-ball with 7:06 to make it 54-48.
“He (Frazier) was really struggling in the first half, but I give him credit for coming back with confidence in the second half to make some shots to give us the lead and give us some breathing room,” Donovan said.
Frazier should have had confidence. He was facing north in the second half.
“He needs to work on shooting at that basket more often,” Patric Young said. “That’s my advice for him.”
Of course, that same advice could also apply to Young. He managed only two shots and two points in the first half. In the second half, he scored 11 more to finish with 13 points to go with six rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot. Like Frazier, he was 4-7 from the field in the second half when facing north.
And, the same theory probably applies to Scottie Wilbekin, too. He had six first half points, but finished with 19, most of them from the foul line where he was 13-16. It was Wilbekin’s 3-pointer in the second half that tied the game at 30-30 and seemed to be the catalyst for a much better offensive half of basketball.
While Wilbekin and Young’s contributions can’t be discounted, it was Frazier that got the Gators going. At the half, he had teammates in his ear encouraging him to fire away with confidence, particularly if he got an open look from the 3-point line.
“We all collectively get in his ear when he’s hesitating to shoot the ball,” Young said. “It’s like ‘Bro, just keep shooting, keep shooting. Don’t hesitate.’ I almost want to say that him giving up an open three is like a turnover because that’s one of the best shots we can take as a team.”
When Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith are hesitating to shoot, Donovan gets frustrated.
“It drives me nuts with he and Dorian,” Donovan said. “It’s so much of a mental thing with them. You would think that they’ve never gone through missing a shot in their lives, but it lives with them; it sticks with them. They get down and they get deflated and they feel like they’re letting me down and the team down. I love that part of them but you’ve got to have enough internal confidence that the next one is going to go down. You can just see it. Frazier gets mad and it affects the next play.
“You can’t be a front running guy where you’re chest bumping and high fiving and you’ve got all this enthusiasm when the ball goes in the hole and when it doesn’t go in the hole you’re all deflated.”
It affected Frazier on the defensive end in the first half. The Gators trailed Missouri, 28-25, which gave this game the earmarks of a grind it out affair. The only reason the Gators were able to get it close was two alley-oop dunks off perfect lobs to the rim by Kasey Hill to Chris Walker, who made his collegiate debut with four points, two rebounds and two blocked shots in seven minutes of play.
Missouri was 4-8 from the 3-point line at the half and the Tigers seemed to have the Gators frustrated with a very active 2-3 zone that almost dared Florida to shoot the ball from the outside. The Tigers, meanwhile, were content to hold the ball for shots for their high scoring duo of Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson. If that meant running the shot clock down to zero, they were content to do it.
Donovan thought that Florida’s first half defensive struggles had everything to do with the lack of productivity on the offensive end.
“I thought our guys mentally because of the way it was going offensively for our team lost their focus on what they were supposed to be doing and got more wrapped up in feeling bad that they weren’t shooting the ball any better,” Donovan said.
That all changed in the second half. Not only did the Gators start hitting open shots, but they also started locking down the Tigers defensively. Missouri came into the game averaging 75 a game but became the seventh straight team to score 62 or fewer points.
Brown and Clarkson came into the game combining for 39.3 points per game. They combined for 29 (Brown 15, Clarkson 14) but they had to struggle to get shots against Florida’s constantly switching defenses. Brown went 5-13 from the floor while Clarkson went 5-14. Brown was 3-7 from the 3-point line but he had been hitting 57% in SEC play. Clarkson was 2-5.
“We at least made those two guys work,” Donovan said. “I thought we did a great job on those two guys. If you look at their shooting percentages neither one of them shot great percentages. Where they did shoot a good percentage in the game was behind the 3-point line.”
Missouri finished the game hitting just 39.6% overall from the field (21-53) and 38.1% (8-21) from the 3-point line.
Florida, after hitting just 39% in the first half shot an even 50% in the second (10-20) and 44.2% (19-43) for the game. The Gators were 6-20 from the 3-point line, 1-11 when they were pointed south, 5-9 when they were pointed north.
GAME NOTES: Florida trailed at the half for only the fourth time all season … The Gators won the battle of the boards, 33-32. Finney-Smith finished the game with seven to lead the Gators while Young and Will Yeguete each had six … Kasey Hill had six assists and only one turnover.