For a little over six minutes Tuesday night, the Prairie View A&M Panthers were feeling pretty good about themselves. They were going toe-to-toe with the nation’s top-ranked team and they actually had a 15-13 lead with 13:55 remaining in the first half. Little did they know those good feelings were going to fade fast and the rest of the evening was going to turn into their worst nightmare.
The Panthers held that two-point lead for all of 10 seconds. Corey Brewer’s two free throws tied the game at 15, kick starting a 24-0 rampage over the next 11:33 that propelled the Gators to a 45-19 halftime lead. Perhaps the Panthers thought things couldn’t get worse when they tried to regroup at the half, but the onslaught was just beginning. By the time the Gators were finished with this feeding frenzy, Florida had a 5-0 record and a 94-33 win over Prairie View before an announced crowd of 11,228 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
When the score was tied at 15-15, Donovan was clearly irritated with his team. He knew the Gators clearly outmatched the Panthers, but he wanted to see his team focused, playing with energy and doing things the right way. From that point on, the Gators turned up the heat on both ends of the court. In the final 34 minutes of the game, the Gators outscored the Panthers, 81-18.
“I’ve told these guys that it’s not about the score or it’s not about who we’re playing, it’s about us,” said Coach Billy Donovan. “It’s about our expectation level every single possession and how we’re playing. I was very disappointed the first five or six minutes defensively. It was 15-15 and I don’t know how much time was left on the clock but we didn’t give up 15 points in that short a period to anybody the first four games and here they come out and they’re probably on pace to get 90 points for the entire game. I think they had 15 points with whatever the time was but the thing that was encouraging to me was they only got four points the rest of the half.”
Al Horford, who led Florida with 13 points, nine rebounds and four assists at the half, thought the Gators began the game without enough emotion or energy.
“I don’t think we were there mentally 100 percent,” said Horford. “Once we got settled in we did a pretty good job of shutting them down in the second half.
Florida shot 62 percent from the field in the first half while holding Prairie View to 25.9 percent on 7-27 shooting. For the game, Florida shot 60.7 percent, hitting 37 of 61 shots including 6-14 from the three-point stripe. Prairie View managed 5-27 from the field in the second half and finished the game 12-54 for 22.4 percent.
The Gators held Prairie View to the lowest number of points since the 2000 season when the Gators held American University to 33. The Panthers 12 made shots matched the lowest total the Gators have given up in a game since they held Florida State to 12 in 2001 and Georgia to 12 in 2005.
On the offensive end, if there was one critical element to Florida’s game it was the crisp passing and ball movement. On one sequence that ended in a Taurean Green three, the Gators made six or seven very crisp, accurate passes in about a 15-second span in which they kept the ball moving until they found Green wide open on the wing.
“People talk about our unselfishness but there’s another key to the unselfishness,” said Donovan. “You can be very unselfish but if you can’t pass a lick you’re never going to look unselfish. Our guys can pass. We had all five guys that can really pass the basketball. When you have five guys that can pass and you incorporate the fact that they are so unselfish you that’s when you see that great ball movement sometimes.”
Horford got an assist late in the first half that highlighted Florida’s unselfish and often spectacular play. The 6-10 junior grabbed a rebound after a missed Prairie View three-pointer, put the ball on the floor and got Florida’s fast break started. Near midcourt he threw a baseball pass that one-hopped into Corey Brewer’s hands for a finishing layup for a 37-15 lead with 4:00 remaining.
“We’ve been doing that all summer long,” said Horford. “Me and Corey have been hooking up with passes like that just in pickup and in practice. I just hadn’t had a chance to show it out on the court.”
Nobody played more than 20 minutes and Donovan got a chance to see his freshmen play extended minutes once again. In these first five games that have been won by an average of 42 points, the freshmen have been auditioning for more minutes off the bench.
“When they get in there with a big lead it’s not garbage time for them,” said Donovan. “I’m evaluating to see if I can put you in the game when the game is in crucial situations in the first or second half. This is not play around time for you to have time and throw lob dunks. It’s for you to prove to me that I can trust you. I have to get a level of trust for you guys in these games. You have to give me the trust so I can put you in the game in crucial situations.”
Getting significant contributions from the freshmen might be important this weekend when the Gators journey to Las Vegas. Florida will be facing a Western Kentucky team that has beaten SEC foe Georgia Friday night and then the Gators face Kansas, which began the season ranked third, on Saturday.
“We have not faced any teams up to this point in time that are going to be like the teams we are going to face in Las Vegas and that should be a real challenge for our team,” said Donovan, who moved within four of tying Norm Sloan’s all-time record for wins in a career. Donovan, in his eleventh year as Florida’s coach, has a 231-98 record. In his 15 years as Florida’s coach during two different eras, Sloan was 235-194.
Donovan said that in Las Vegas, the Gators are going to “find out a little bit more about ourselves.”
The Gators figure to get a greater challenge from teams that have better athletes and much more height than any team they’ve faced so far. Against Prairie View, the Gators turned in their best defensive performance of the year but the Panthers had only three players that were at least 6-7 and 6-8 Johnny Cobb was the tallest. Western Kentucky and Kansas will be able to match height with Florida’s front line of 6-11 Noah, 6-10 Horford and 6-9 Brewer.
“The biggest reason why we’re shooting at such a high percentage is the height disparity in every team that we’ve played against,” said Donovan. “If you look at the field goal percentage of our front court people it’s extremely high because we haven’t gone against front court players that are 6-10 and 6-11 like we’ll see in Vegas.”
The Gators had five double figures scorers led by Joakim Noah, who scored 13 second half points and finished the night with a game-high 19. Al Horford, Walter Hodge and freshman Marreese Speights each had 13 points and Corey Brewer finished with 12. Horford and Speights had double-doubles as Horford pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds and Speights had 10.
Horford’s effort was particularly pleasing for Donovan. Against Tennessee-Chattanooga Saturday night, Horford only got to play 13 minutes because of foul trouble. In the first half, Horford was totally dominating.
“I was totally impressed with him, pleased with him,” said Donovan. “Every adjective you can use about him in the first half.”
GAME NOTES: The Gators have won 16 consecutive games dating back to a win over Georgia in Florida’s final home game last season … Florida allowed only 14 points in the second half. The all-time low for a half under Donovan is 12, scored by High Point back in 2001 … When Prairie View took an 8-7 lead at the 17:26 mark in the first half, it marked the first time this season the Gators have trailed in a game. Florida had gone 162:32 without trailing in a game.