Gators overcome “painful” first half

Ten minutes into the first half Thursday night, Billy Donovan really wasn’t sure what he was watching but it sure didn’t resemble any basketball he’s ever coached.

“It was painful to watch,” Donovan said after 14th-ranked Florida’s 79-59 win over Middle Tennessee State before an announced crowd of 9,020 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

Painful actually sounds like an exaggeration. Brutal might be a better description. The 14th-ranked Gators (4-1) led the Blue Raiders, 10-5, and were playing the way you would expect for a team without a point guard. The only thing that was really going well was the Gators were getting to the foul line with some regularity and that offset poor shooting and a lack of movement on the offensive end.

The Gators played like a team without a true point guard in the first half but the offensive struggles weren’t all because of ineptitude. Middle Tennessee had something to do with it thanks to a constantly shifting 1-3-1 trap that morphed into a 2-3. That created plenty of recognition problems and a Florida team that Donovan said was thinking far too much instead of simply calling out a play and getting into some sort of offensive flow.

“We had guys trying to pull the ball out and figuring what they were in,” Donovan said. “I kept trying to explain to them it doesn’t make any difference what they’re in just call something out so we’re all on the same page. That’s what I thought the problem was.”

Thanks to a 15-18 effort from the foul line, the Gators were able to compensate for a 9-25 first half from the field. Florida led at the half, 34-26, but it was a struggle on the offensive end of the floor.

Defensively, the Gators put together their best effort of the still young season, holding the Blue Raiders to only 8-20 from the field in the first half and 20-47 for the entire game.

“With a limited bench and no point guard playing against a good team I thought our defense was constant the entire game and I thought our offense was really good without a point guard in the second half,” Donovan said.

The second half was a different matter, however, and it started on the defensive end where the Gators continued to play with great intensity. It all started with Patric Young, who finished the game with 16 points, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. His energy was infectious, particularly when the Gators got off to a 15-4 start at the beginning of the second half.

“I thought he set the tone defensively,” Donovan said. “He was active. He rebounded. He made his free throws. I was really proud of the way he played.”

Florida’s active defense energized things on the offensive end. It was a 37-30 game when Young brought the crowd to its feet with a thunderous dunk with 17:30 to go in the game. That was followed by consecutive three-point plays by Jacob Kurtz and Dorian Finney-Smith to stretch the lead out to 45-30 with 16:22 left in the game.

A three-point play by Casey Prather, one of four the Gators got the old-fashioned way in the second half, stretched the Florida lead to 20, 52-32, with 14:32 left. The closest Middle Tennessee could come the rest of the way was 12 on the fourth consecutive three-pointer from Jaqawn Raymond, with 9:44 remaining to make the score 58-46. All that did was get the Gators going on another run in which they outscored the Raiders, 13-4, sandwiching three-point shots by DeVon Walker and Michael Frazier around a three-point play by Dorian Finney-Smith for a 71-50 lead with 6:58 to go.

The second half points came from every direction as the Gators found their offensive flow. It had everything to do with keeping things very simple, which helped considering the Gators went through five point guards – Walker, Frazier, Finney-Smith, Eli Carter and Billy Donovan III.

“We tried to simplify what we were doing,” Donovan said. “We were just trying to figure out their zone instead of just calling something and just playing through it. In the second half we did that and we shot 64%. We had good balance. I was really proud of our guys.”

The Gators hit 13 of their first 17 shots in the second half and finished the half 16-25. Six different Gators scored in double figures led by Young with 16, Finney Smith (14), Frazier (13), Casey Prather (11) and Walker (11).

The 79 points were scored without a lot of help from the three-point line, too. Florida only took 12 shots from beyond the arc, knocking down four, quite a difference from last year’s team, which launched early and often.

Donovan was happy with the shot selection.

“I think we’re playing to our identity at least,” Donovan said. “I didn’t think we passed up a lot of threes and I didn’t think we should have taken any more than we took.”

The Gators play Jacksonville University on the road Monday night and while there has been plenty of speculation that Wilbekin will return from suspension, Donovan was totally non-committal.

“He still has stuff he has to do so I’m not going to comment on any of those things right now,” Donovan said. “I’m not prepared to make any statement that he’s coming back to our team.”

GAME NOTES: The Gators out rebounded the Blue Raiders, 31-26 … Yeguete hit another three-pointer. He is 2-2 this season. He has three three-balls in his career … Florida finished the game 25-30 from the foul line (83.3%) … Young, a notoriously bad free throw shooter hit his last six from the line to finish 6-8 … Florida outscored Middle Tennessee, 34-20 in the paint.


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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.