Gators win but take a pounding

Theoretically, there is no such thing as a bad win although you might have a hard time convincing Billy Donovan after Florida’s 78-68 win over the Ole Miss Rebels Saturday evening at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in the first Southeastern Conference game of the season for both teams. Since SEC victories don’t exactly grow on trees, Donovan isn’t about to give this one back but he wouldn’t mind if the Gators start boxing out every time a shot goes up and a little more hustle on the backboards would be greatly appreciated.

The Gators (14-2) are 1-0 to start the SEC portion of their schedule despite the fact Ole Miss (9-6, 0-1 SEC West) won the rebounding battle by a whopping 46-22 margin. Even more disturbing was the 18-4 offensive rebounding advantage. Ole Miss finished the game with 22 second chance points.

There wasn’t much of a size differential between the Gators and Ole Miss — if anything the Gators probably had a little bit more height — but there was a huge gap in hustle and willingness to mix it up in and around the basket. Ole Miss seemed to relish the contact while the Gators shied away.

“What really got exposed is the thing I’ve always been worried about with our team,” said Donovan, who couldn’t recall the last time the Gators were outrebounded so badly. “Will we physically compete up front and create a level of confrontation in the paint?”

The answer to that question Saturday night was a resounding no and the rebounding margin could have been far worse except that the Gators shot lights out in the first half. The Gators shot 62.1 percent from the field in the first half and 8-15 (53.3 percent) from the three-point stripe en route to a 53-39 halftime margin.

The Gators hit eight of their first 10 three-point attempts then missed their next 10 — the last five three-point shots in the first half and the first five in the second. Walter Hodge hit a three-pointer with 11:33 remaining in the game to give the Gators a 62-49 lead, breaking the 0-10 streak.

Donovan didn’t mind that the Gators were launching three-balls since most of the shots were solid, open looks and part of the regular offensive flow. What bothered him was when the ball went up, Ole Miss usually came down with the rebound.

“I didn’t think our threes were that bad,” said Donovan. “With this team I’ll take a good wide open three if we can take it. It gave us a big lead and really, probably the three-point line won the game for us since we made six more threes than they did (Florida finished 11-29; Ole Miss was 5-14).

“Two things I thought won the game for us. One was the three-point line — we made enough threes — and the other thing was I thought we were disruptive defensively, creating some turnovers in some situations.”

The Gators forced 19 Ole Miss turnovers including eight by freshman Terrico White, forced along with fellow freshman Will Bogan to split the minutes at the point in the absence of standout point guard Chris Warren, lost for the season with a blown ACL. The Gators came up with 12 steals and 18 points off turnovers.

When the Gators were forcing turnovers and getting into the running game, they played very, very well. The first 15 minutes of the game might have been the best Florida has played all season long. When Walter Hodge converted a layup and free throw into a three-point play with 5:19 left in the half, the Gators had their largest lead of the night, 49-28.

That’s when the Rebels started to get back into the game and they did it by outhustling the Gators on the boards. Ole Miss put bodies on bodies and boxed out. Their physical presence on the boards was something the Gators wanted no part of.

Maybe it was the frustration of getting beaten so badly on the boards that got the Gators out of synch but they hit only two of their final eight shots of the half. Ole Miss closed on an 11-4 run to end the half.

Donovan was particularly disturbed that his three frontcourt starters (6-8 Alex Tyus, 6-8 Dan Werner and 6-9 Chandler Parsons) and freshmen reserves (6-8 Allan Chaney and 6-10 Kenny Kadji) combined for exactly zero offensive rebounds in the first half. Only guards Nick Calathes and Walter Hodge (one each) kept the Gators from being blanked.

“We played an entire half of basketball and our frontcourt didn’t have an offensive rebound,” said Donovan.  Parsons got one in the second half, otherwise Florida’s front line would have done an oh-fer.

The final five minutes of the first half were almost a blueprint of the second half for the Gators, who went long stretches when they couldn’t buy a basket. Ole Miss didn’t exactly light it up, but 10 offensive rebounds in the second half helped shrink Florida’s lead down to six with 7:58 remaining in the game when Murphy Holloway made the third shot count to close it to 64-58.

That woke up the Gators at least from the three-point stripe. Nick Calathes, who finished the game with 19 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, four steals and a blocked shot, hit a three and the next possession, Hodge buried another to stretch the lead back to 12, 70-58, with 6:27 left in the game.

Ole Miss got back within six twice more — on a three by Will Bogan with 3:54 left and a stick back of a third shot by former Gator David Huertas with 2:07 remaining that closed the gap to 74-68.

Those two stickbacks — the first one by Murphy and the second by Huertas — emphasized how Ole Miss was willing to play tough and physical on the boards. Ole Miss made every rebound a team scramble to see who wanted the ball the most. The Gators didn’t give anything close to that kind of effort.

“My biggest concern with our team is I don’t know how competitive we are,” said Donovan. “That’s really in a nutshell where my concern is — physically competing. I think we get way more concerned when the ball doesn’t go in the basket as far as taking energy away from our team. I wish sometimes we got as upset when we give up an offensive rebound or getting beat off the dribble as we do sometimes when we don’t make shots.”

Donovan has been trying to resolve the lack of physical play and competitiveness going after loose balls or rebounds without success in practice. He said he has been trying to toughen up his team and get them to become more physical but it’s rather difficult when they don’t seem to have the stomach for it.

“I’d like to see more physical altercation and banging,” said Donovan. “But the problem is when you have two guys in there that you’re trying to create the physical altercation with and neither one of them will physically altercate, it’s hard to create a physical altercation.”

Unless the Gators can find a way to get some physical play on the boards, the SEC schedule is going to be very difficult. When the Gators get hot as they were in the first half, they can shoot their way to some wins, but what happens when the shots don’t fall?

“I thought if we would have rebounded the ball better in the second half and kept them off the backboard, we could have withstood a poor shooting night and that’s unfortunately something we’re going to be dealing with the entire league,” said Donovan. “Until we get it corrected or we can get it corrected — and I don’t know if we can or can’t get it corrected. I think it’s a mentality you have and I don’t know if you can instill that type of mentality.

“Ole Miss came in I think one of the poorer rebounding teams in our league and we get outrebounded by 24. That will give you an indication of where our team is at right now. Those guys can talk all they want about yeah, we didn’t rebound, but there comes a time when you have to compete and do it.”

GAME NOTES: The Gators hit the road to face Auburn Wednesday night. The Tigers (10-5, 0-1 SEC West) lost their SEC opener to South Carolina Saturday night on the road. At home, Auburn is 9-1 this year … Calathes was joined in double figures by Walter Hodge, who had 16 points, one rebound, one assist and four steals, and Chandler Parsons, who had 12 points, three rebounds, one assist and one steal … The Gators had a phenomenal 22 assists for their 26 made shots … Freshman Erving Walker scored eight points and handed out five assists while Werner had six points, three rebounds, six assists, a blocked shot and three steals. Ray Shipman had a productive eight minutes off the bench with six points.

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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.