It probably only seemed like eight years since the last time Dorian-Finney Smith played in a basketball game that actually counted, so he wasn’t about to let a little thing like a virus keep him out of Saturday’s game with Arkansas-Little Rock at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
“I was really sick; I lost about 10 pounds; I couldn’t eat,” Finney-Smith said after scoring 17 points and grabbing nine rebounds to spark the 10th-ranked Florida Gators (2-1) to an 86-56 win over UALR, his first action in a real game since his freshman year at Virginia Tech in March, 2012. Finney-Smith sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules then missed the Gators’ exhibition game and first two regular season games while serving out a suspension for breaking team rules.
The suspension was lifted after the Gators lost to Wisconsin Tuesday night, but that is the same day Finney-Smith started running a fever.
“He started feeling poorly on Tuesday and we had Wednesday off then there was Thursday and Friday,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He really hadn’t picked up a ball since Monday and he did a little bit at the shoot around today and said he wanted to try.”
The idea of finally playing must have had the same effect as a powerful antibiotic. Finney-Smith came to the O-Dome for the Saturday morning shoot around and felt pretty good. When he dressed out and went through the pre-game warmups, he felt even better.
Donovan made the decision to bring Finney-Smith off the bench but he had no idea how long the 6-8, 214-pound sophomore could go.
“I didn’t know how many minutes we would get out of him,” Donovan said. “I thought maybe 10 to 15.
Finney-Smith was good for 16 minutes, but it was the 10 minutes he gave Donovan in the second half combined with quality minutes off the bench from walk-on Jacob Kurtz that made the difference. The Spartans were only down, 46-41, with 12:06 remaining in the game when Donovan went with full court pressure.
With a lineup of Finney-Smith, Kurtz (six points two, rebounds, one assist), DeVon Walker (three rebounds, two assists), Casey Prather (27 points, five rebounds and five assists) and Kasey Hill (14 points, three rebounds, six assists, five steals), the Gators went on a 25-8 run that totally changed the complexion of the game. The Spartans had been content to walk the ball up the floor and run some offense, but when the Gators applied the pressure, it became a 90-foot game that certainly favored Florida.
Donovan had tried some full court pressure earlier in the half, but the combination of the new lineup and putting Hill or Walker on the player trying to inbound the ball disrupted UALR.
“What we ended up doing was we put a guard on the ball on the press and we had our two bigs matchup with their two bigs and that puts more speed and quickness in the front of the press to be more disruptive,” Donovan said. “I thought our guys did a pretty good job on the press once we made some changes.
Finney-Smith hit a baseline jumper to make it a 48-41 game to start a 14-2 run that ended with a monstrous Casey Prather dunk with 8:49 to go. Over the next 2:59, the Gators outscored the Spartans, 11-6, taking a 71-49 lead with 5:50 remaining on two free throws by Finney-Smith.
Donovan called off the press the rest of the way, but the damage had been done and notice was served that full court pressure will be a staple for Florida once Donovan has all his players healthy and off suspension. It’s a far different situation than last year when the Gators were limited by personnel.
“When you have multiple guys who can go in the front of the press and you can keep a guy fresh … last year Erik (Murphy) was not great at the front of the press so we only pressed with Will (Yeguete) and Prather,” Donovan said. “Because we can put more guys on the ball in the front of the press we have a chance to be more effective.
The Gators weren’t very effective in the first half when they couldn’t hit their free throws and gave the Spartans extra chances on hustle plays. The Gators were 6-14 from the foul line and gave the Spartans nine points off loose balls. Florida went into the locker at halftime tied at 27-27 thanks to a floater by Kasey Hill with one second remaining.
A lack of ball movement on the perimeter played right into UALR’s hands. Florida’s inability to get adequate spacing and the lack of crisp passing allowed the Spartans to pack it in down low in the post. Every time the Gators tried to feed Patric Young or Will Yeguete down low, the Spartans surrounded them and the Gators gave up possessions.
“In the first half we got really stagnant,” Donovan said. “We got the ball stopped too much, stopped in somebody’s hands and we tried to force feed the post.”
Yeguete and Young combined for eight first half points, but Yeguete turned the ball over three times and Young was just 1-3 from the field. The Spartans scored two points off Florida turnovers and got those nine second chance points mostly by hustle.
It really shouldn’t have been close.
“That was the difference in the first half – eight points left at the free throw line and giving them nine points on these loose balls,” Donovan said. “It’s basically in itself double figures points you’re giving up in a half. I was happy it was tied.”
The Gators were much better out of the chute in the second half as Prather (six points) and Young (four) combined for the first 10 points, but it wasn’t until the Gators went to the press that they were able to change tempo and put some distance between themselves and the Spartans.
GAME NOTES: The Gators face Southern University Monday at 7 p.m. at the O-Dome … Prather has scored 67 points in three games. He scored only 38 his freshman year and 57 as a sophomore … Young had his first double figures game of the season, finishing with 10 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes … Michael Frazier missed his first five three-pointers before connecting on two long balls in the second half … Florida shot 31-60 from the field, 6-17 from the three-point line and 18-29 from the foul line … The Gators were out-rebounded 22-15 in the first half but finished the game with a 40-36 advantage … Florida scored 59 second half points.