On the night he became the winningest basketball coach in University of Florida history, Billy Donovan was not in much of a mood to celebrate. Sure, the fourth-ranked Gators improved to 10-2 with an 88-67 win over Stetson, but Donovan called the fastest time out he can ever recall in his eleven years at the Florida helm and late in the game he broke a clipboard.
The Gators earned Donovan win number 236 in his Florida coaching career, moving him past Norm Sloan on the all-time victory list, quite an accomplishment but nothing that Donovan would even smile about when Wednesday’s game was over. Donovan was far more concerned with the reasons that Stetson bolted to a 7-0 lead in the first couple of minutes of the game and why the Gators allowed Stetson to shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
“We got off to a terrible start in the game,” said Donovan, whose team played once again without 6-10 Al Horford, out for a second straight game with a high ankle sprain. “I think our first four possessions we turned the ball over. We got down 7-0. I did not like the disposition of our team at all to start the game.”
The Gators fell into the same beginning of the game trap that has been the norm through the first 12 games. The Gators were almost lifeless to start the game and it took them awhile before they began to play with some energy.
“We’ve got to do a better job of coming out and taking teams out from the beginning,” said point guard Taurean Green.
Florida tied the game at 15-15 on a Walter Hodge three with 13:56 remaining in the first half and the Gators took the lead for good at 18-17 on a Dan Werner three with 13:20 left. The Gators had a decisive advantage in terms of size and athletic ability and at times they looked clearly dominant but then they would go into a funk where energy levels dipped and the concentration followed suit.
Obviously this wasn’t the kind of performance that Donovan wanted to see in a game that should have been a tuneup for Saturday afternoon’s matchup against third-ranked Ohio State at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center and as disappointed as Donovan was, so was junior center Joakim Noah.
“All I know is if we play the way we played tonight on Saturday it’s going to get really ugly,” said Noah, who had 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists. “We need to wake up.”
Green was concerned that the Gators once again had lapses that sometimes lasted a couple of minutes or more, particularly on the defensive end.
“That’s a definite negative,” said Green. “We can’t have four or five minutes in a game where we play lackadaisical and mess up. We have to play a full 40 minutes of our style and that’s fundamental and disruptive.”
The Gators stretched a 44-30 halftime lead to 20 points (57-37) in the first six minutes of the second half. Stetson staged a couple of mini-rallies to cut the lead down to 13 (64-51) but Florida regained its composure and finished off the Hatters on a 24-10 run sparked by Hodge, who hit three three-pointers.
Hodge scored 17 points to lead the Gators, hitting all five of his three-point shots. For the season, Hodge is hitting an incredible 70 percent from the three-point stripe on 21-30 shooting.
The Gators also got a 15 point, six rebounds, five assist game out of Corey Brewer in a far stronger performance than the one against Florida A&M down in Tampa Sunday night. Brewer, who missed three games with mononucleosis, got in 33 minutes. He hit six of his eight shots from the field and four of his six rebounds were on the offensive end.
“I’ve still got a way to go but I feel a lot better,” said Brewer, who estimated that he played at about 80-85 percent of his normal capacity. “I feel that I’m getting there.”
Green finished with 11 points and eight assists while Werner added 10 points off the bench.
Getting five players in double figures and shooting 60.7 percent from the game were positives for Donovan, but the negatives were the Gators gave up 51 percent shooting and they turned the ball over (11 times) more than they forced turnovers (Stetson had nine).
What bothered Donovan more than anything else is that he’s not seeing the same kind of passion and energy that he’s accustomed to seeing from his team.
“I don’t think our team right now reflects my personality as a coach is the best way I can say it,” said Donovan, now 271-120 overall as a coach, 236-100 at Florida. “There’s a lot of different issues but I’m not going to make excuses for them. We have had some key guys hurt and key guys injured in key situations. W
“We’re a fragile team … in terms of fragile, not emotionally, mentally or physically. If our talent level was so great we would have been ranked last year. We weren’t ranked last year to start the season. This group of guys has been good because they’ve been a team and they’ve played with tremendous emotion and passion. We don’t play with the level of passion that I think they should be playing with to call it like it is and it bothers me deeply because I have a great level of passion for the game and a great level of the opportunity you have when you step across the lines to play. You can sit there and say it’s Stetson but I never believe you compete by looking at what’s across the front of anybody’s jersey. You’re going to go out and play regardless.”
Florida has battled through injury problems (Horford) and illness (Noah and Brewer) for more than a month but Noah says that none of that will matter Saturday when the Gators face off with Ohio State in this nationally televised game.
“We can make a lot of excuses as a team,” said Noah. “You know we haven’t been healthy … Al Horford’s hurt right now, Corey’s not been 100 percent, I’ve been sick. As a team we haven’t played like altogether fresh at 100 percent. The only time we really did was the first four or five games. There are a lot of ways we can make excuses but all I know is that I don’t think Ohio State really cares about the excuses right now. When you’re between the lines all those things don’t matter. If we’re playing them the way we’re playing right now it could get really ugly.”