LSU freshman Ben Simmons lived up to his billing with 28 points and 17 rebounds, but the Florida Gators basketball team feels they held the young star from truly lighting up the Stephen C. O’Connell Center and helping the Gators win 68-62 on Saturday afternoon.
At least, head coach Mike White hopes that Simmons felt he had to fight for every stat, because the Gators, says White had to fight to keep him just to those eye popping numbers of 28 and 17.
“I hope so cause I know our guys are tired,” jokes White after the game.
“I know Justin Leon and Dorian Finney-Smith. DeVon Walker did a good job in a few minutes on him. He’s fantastic. He’s a handful. It would’ve taken an extraordinary, extraordinarily physical effort and it did, just to slow him down.”
And while it looks like Simmons still had a dominating performance in the O-Dome, there’s one more stat in his line that tells a broader story; eight turnovers.
Florida was able to force Simmons into eight turnovers and that, says White, was the key to their game plan.
“We don’t get those 8 turnovers, we don’t win… it’s not like we were great on him but did a good enough job as crazy as that sounds.”
It was going to take a crazy amount of effort to hold Simmons and LSU in check after the Tigers showed what they could do with a win earlier in the week over Kentucky; and effort had been noticeably absent in the Gators loss on Wednesday to Tennessee.
As the team arrived early to the O-Dome on Saturday morning, forward Justin Leon could already sense the shift.
“Like Tennessee we all knew like ‘aw man’,” says Leon continuing, “and then [today] everybody was talking just more even though it was early, it was 9 o’clock but we was up talking, jumping around, we were energetic so I knew this game was gonna be good.”
It was “good” mostly because the Gators went back to their bread and butter of defensive intensity and ball control.
Florida forced 17 LSU turnovers while only committing six themselves, and out scored the Tigers 15-5 in points off turnovers. It would prove to be the difference as neither LSU nor Florida could find a niche from downtown, shooting 15% and 17% respectively. The overall field goal percentage wasn’t that much prettier, with the Gators putting up 38% (24-63) while the Tigers only posted a 36% shooting percentage (20-56).
But by committing to the plan that’s brought success thus far, the Florida Gators basketball team found a way to win against one, if not the SEC’s brightest current star in Simmons and his incredible supporting cast.
“We pride ourselves on the defensive end and taking care of the ball,” says guard Chris Chiozza.
“So most of practice we’ve just been working on not turning the ball over… we knew that it was gonna be a battle the whole game. We’re not gonna come out here and just blow anybody out in this league and if you get a big lead they’re gonna come back and make a run so you know you gotta always be bought into what we’re doing.”
This also meant playing tough inside, something the Gators lacked in Knoxville.
Florida outscored LSU in second chance points, fast break points and points in the paint with each one getting a packed O-Dome even more rowdy—thus propelling the team to a higher energy, leading to more of these points, and energizing the crowd even more—it was a vicious cycle for LSU but one that Simmons said he still loved playing in.
Nothing proved this theory more though than a series of dunks that made the Gators look like the Monstars for a minute.
“Any time we get a dunk or an alley it just give you a big boost of energy,” says Chiozza.
“We were able to get a couple, three of those in a row I think and Devin got a dunk tip off the rim on 3 people and that really got everybody going and just able to maintain that energy… everybody just crashing the glass and trying to dunk it tonight. I don’t know what everybody was eating but just need to keep doing it.”
And just as Florida Gators basketball fans recently discovered the power of KeVaughn Allen on the court, Mike White and company revealed another playmaker to use as the SEC schedule rolls on.
Justin Leon scored 14 and grabbed nine rebounds during his 25 minutes, something that even White was a tad surprised by.
“Justin was terrific. I didn’t expect him to come in here in a big game and hit two big 3’s for us, honestly,” admits White.
“But we did know with Justin, I’m not surprised at the defensive performance and I know it sounds nuts cause Simmons had 28-17. But Justin moved his feet well; some of the better possessions we had defensively in the game were in large part due to him. He’s a really tough kid.”
The Florida Gators basketball team now heads to College Station, Texas to face the Texas A&M Aggies; the Aggies beat Tennessee 92-88 on Saturday afternoon. You can see the game at 7pm on SEC Network and as always join GatorCountry.com to follow along for full coverage!