No one really wanted to leave the court.
Five minutes had passed since the Florida Gators (14-15/7-9 SEC) defeated Tennessee (14-16/6-10 SEC), 66-49 in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Saturday night and the team was still just standing in front of the Florida student section, hesitant to return to the locker room.
With the win, head coach Billy Donovan notched his 500th career win as a head coach.
As he conducted post game interviews with local and national affiliates, his team just hung back, watching their leader step even further into history.
The milestone wasn’t the only reason they had for smiling though. In a season that has seen the Gators lose 11 games by ten points or less, and even included a losing streak of four in a row, on this night, during this game, the Gators dominated.
In the 17-point win, the Gators shot 57.1% compared to the Volunteers 44.4%. Florida outrebounded Tennessee 27-19, meaning second chance points swung Florida’s way 15-3, they had 12 more assist and got 15 more points from their bench.
Those numbers all led to Billy Donovan summing up his milestone night with, “Today was great for me personally, what happened, that number, but I was much much more pleased and happier with the way our team played than anything else.”
That play started hot, especially from beyond the arc. Eli Carter, hit a three to get things going 1:15 into the game. Tennessee quickly tied it up, but the Gators came right back down the floor, this time Carter assisting Chris Chiozza for a three.
Senior Jon Horford put on a Vine worthy show, when he was able to block a Willie Carmichael shot on one end, and then grabbed Kasey Hill’s assist on the other end to throw down a dunk that got the O-Dome back on their feet. The whole six-second escapade gave the Gators a 10-3 lead and forced a Tennessee timeout.
Horford finished the game going 5-7 for 10 points and four rebounds.
Chris Walker also made a short statement with a little over 10 minutes left in the first half, scoring back to back dunks including a reverse slam that rocked the rim and the crowd and gave the Gators a 10 point lead that they wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the game.
Coming off of a three game suspension for a violation of team rules, Dorian Finney-Smith finally checked in with 16:11 remaining in the first half. Less than one minute later he said hello to Gator fans again with a dunk that made it 12-5 and got Doe-Doe on a roll that couldn’t be stopped.
While Finney-Smith’s scoring came in spurts, each basket was interspersed with rebounds and defensive stops that all combined to give the junior his second double-double of the season.
Finney-Smith wasn’t held out of practice for his entire suspension, so Donovan says he was never worried about what he might get out of his forward due to reps, but instead was anxious about his attitude coming in.
“I was much much more concerned about him being embarrassed or being disappointed”, Donovan admitted. “You kinda come into the building now, you haven’t been playing in three games and we dropped three games in a row, now all a sudden you come in there, its ‘Is everybody mad at me, is everybody down on me’ and the thing I tried to explain to Doe-Doe…he’s gotta be able to move past it. He served his time, he paid his penalty, he needs to move forward. And how he moves forward is really important and I thought he was really locked in and ready to play and I think he wanted to play well because of what had happened and him missing three games.”
Doe-Doe agreed, saying after the game, “I just wanted to come out here and play with a lot of energy. I owed it to these guys to come out and have a good game.”
Have a good game he did, finished with 20 total points, 10 rebounds, and two blocks in 30 minutes of play.
Another guy who played more than expected was Eli Carter. The junior guard has been suffering from strep throat most of the week. This is his second bout with the illness this season, and Donovan shuddered remembering what happened last time. Carter lost 13 pounds and missed 10 days.
It didn’t matter on Saturday though, when Carter clocked 35 minutes of game time and went 3-8 from downtown, scoring 11 in all.
Asked if playing sick makes a difference, Carter couldn’t help but laugh as he answered, “maybe you get the rest, you don’t get to practice one day, maybe that’s it.”
Coming into the game, Carter needed only one point to pass 1,000 for his career, and he now stands at 1,010.
But he’s happy to let his memorable night play second fiddle to his coaches.
“Well he’s Billy Donovan so over 500 [is more special] of course.”
He also credit’s the nights win as the culmination of guys never losing faith in their game, saying, “guys were very unselfish, getting open looks. Those are shots we normally haven’t made and tonight they went in.”
Florida will now prepare for Texas A&M on Tuesday night, a team that beat the Gators 63-62 on Valentine’s Day. While Donovan does have one of his leading scorers back in Finney-Smith, he isn’t confident that his other leading scorer, Michael Frazier II, will be healed from his high ankle sprain and ready to play versus the Aggies.
Using the game plan that Carter says won Donovan his milestone though, they will tip off versus TAMU at 9pm on ESPNU, hoping to get Donovan number 501.