The Gamecocks had only one rebound in the first 10 minutes of the game, and the Gators opened up a 17-point lead by getting out to an early 14-1 rebounding edge.
Yet less than a minute into the second half, Florida led by just six thanks to a sloppy finish to the first half and a slow start to the second as South Carolina put together a 12-1 run.
“I just thought it deflated our team in a lot of ways, and I didn’t think from a maturity standpoint we handled that very well,” Donovan said. “What happened was our focus went from playing defense and rebounding defensively to making shots.”
Florida struggled to regain its first-half form as the rebounding edge evened up the rest of the game, but the Gators (18-4, 6-1 in Southeastern Conference play) managed to hold on to knock off the Gamecocks (9-12, 1-6 SEC) 74-66.
Donovan said the team’s inability to capitalize on the big early lead happened because the team let a few mistakes in the final minutes of the first half affect its defense and free-throw shooting.
Florida shot just 5-11 from the charity stripe in the first half and freshman guard Brad Beal missed the front end of a pair of free throws three times.
“I told Brad Beal I’m going to change your number to number 12 for one-for-two, because he goes to the free-throw line and goes one-for-two the whole entire time,” Donovan said. “Those things, we’ve got to be able to get locked in because they’ve shown the ability to do it.”
The teams traded baskets for most of the second half until Beal put his stamp on the game with a little less than four minutes remaining.
With Florida leading 56-50, Beal took off from the right side of the floor about seven feet away from the basket and launched up over Damontre Harris, slamming it home over Harris’ outstretched hand as the crowd of 10,003 erupted. The play was featured at No. 4 on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top Plays.
“I just wanted to try to finish at the rim strong,” Beal said. “Harris was blocking shots all night, so I just wanted to try to go up strong and just try to make a play.”
Beal finished the game with 17 points on 5-11 shooting, while recording his fourth double-double of the season with 11 rebounds. However, the Gators couldn’t capitalize on the energy his dunk created, as the Gamecocks buried a couple of threes late to keep things close.
“The dunk was okay, but there’s other parts that we had to improve on,” he said. “Our shots weren’t falling, and then our defense fell off and they started coming back and making a run. We really just have to stay poised and maintain a good mentality on defense.”
Despite the lapses defensively late in the game and at the end of the first half, Beal’s strong rebounding performance helped Florida finish with a 42-30 edge on the boards, despite sophomore center Patric Young having a somewhat off night.
Coming off the bench for the fifth straight game, Young never found his rhythm after his first shot attempt was blocked by Harris, and he finished with just five points and five rebounds.
“I don’t know if he was frustrated,” senior point guard Erving Walker said. “A couple calls went against him and he never really got into the flow of the game.”
Florida finished 14-15 from the free-throw line in the game’s final four minutes, shaking off the shooting woes from the charity stripe in the first half.
Donovan was pleased with the turnaround but said his team has got to get more consistent across the board.
“That’s what happens to our team sometimes,” he said. “At one point, I think we made 17 in a row. But how can you go 5-12 (sic) in the first half? What happens is their focus gets narrowed, and I think sometimes they’re just not in tune with what they need to be doing at that time.”
Kenny Boynton led the team in free-throw shooting with a team-high eight makes. He shook off a two-point outing against Mississippi State by dropping a game-high 24 points on 6-13 shooting.
“It wasn’t really important, but it kind of gave me some confidence,” he said. “I think I stayed positive after the two-point game I had. I was happy with the win, but I kind of just put that game past me and kept moving forward.”
The junior shooting guard took a shot to his left shoulder on a drive when he was elbowed by a Mississippi State player. He had ice on it after the game but assured reporters he was fine.
With the win, Florida extended its winning streak to six games. The Gators have now won 18 straight home games.
Florida will face two of the league’s best teams in the next six days, taking on Vanderbilt (16-6, 5-2 SEC) on Saturday at 1 p.m. at home before traveling to face No. 1 Kentucky on Tuesday.
“This team, I think we’re ready,” Boynton said. “We’re not a young team. We don’t have any excuses, we’ve just got to take every game one at a time.”