Greatness will require sustained intensity

Having been a part of three exceptional basketball teams that were each within a game of making the Final Four, Patric Young knows all about being good. He’s happy with what he’s achieved so far in his Florida career but he doesn’t want to leave Gainesville without tasting greatness.

“I feel as if in order to become a Gator great you have to do something great in this program,” Young said Wednesday night after he scored 13 points, grabbed six rebounds and came away with three steals in Florida’s 74-58 win over South Carolina (7-7, 0-1 SEC) in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. “Of course everyone in my senior class (Young, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete), we’ve really had good careers here, but in order to go out as great and to be satisfied, we would love to finish it up with a championship. The only way we can do that is if we are pushing ourselves every single day. I know Coach Donovan is going to push us because he sees the potential in us every day. He sees the ceiling. It’s a very high ceiling for us and we’ve got such a long way to go. We have to keep polishing the diamond in the rough and we will get there.”

Polishing the diamond in the rough probably begins with developing a killer instinct. The Gators (12-2, 1-0 SEC) probably should be unbeaten right now. They had the lead late in the road games they lost at Wisconsin and Connecticut. They’ve also seen big leads dissolve against the likes of Florida State and Kansas, games that should have been blowouts if the Gators had only been able to sustain their intensity.

Ah, yes. Intensity. If only the Gators would sustain it for an entire game.

They had it to start the game against South Carolina. It was 14-1 in the first six minutes of the game and it took the Gamecocks nearly 10 minutes to make their first shot from the field. For most of the first half, the Gamecocks had more turnovers than they did points.

But then the intensity began to slip away, the same way it did when the Gators had their foot on the throats of both FSU and Kansas but for some reason they eased up instead of stomping.

“We allow human nature to kick in and us having a mindset of relax a little bit instead of having that killer mindset of keep pushing and pursuing greatness,” Young said. “We have to get better at that for sure. In order to be great, you have to keep pursuing it. You can’t relax. You have to keep pushing yourself to get better.”

But relax the Gators did. They should have led by at least 20 at the half, but instead settled for a 34-21 lead. South Carolina had 11 turnovers in the first 10 minutes, but only four in the final 10 minutes, a sure sign that the defensive intensity that had the Gamecocks playing like a bad team from the YMCA league eased up.

In the second half, the Gamecocks hit seven of their first ten shots, closing the gap to eight on a couple of occasions before the Gators woke up out of their fog long enough to put their foot on the intensity gas pedal once again to stretch the lead back out 23 – 70-47 – before South Carolina closed with a rush to get the final margin back to the more respectable final margin of 16.

“I don’t what it is but we have a hard time sustaining intensity,” Donovan said after the game. “To me we’re going to have to do something to get that resolved and corrected. That’s kind of becoming a theme that I’m kind of getting irritated with by our team.”

Irritated. That’s a good place to start but even Donovan knows that it’s going to take more than that to get this team to go at it the way he wants. When the Gators are scrambling and pressing and covering for each other defensively so that opponents find open shots hard to come by, this is a very difficult team to score against. They’ve played that way in spurts throughout the season.

What Donovan wants is for the Gators to play like that an entire game.

“We’re nowhere near where we were defensively a year ago,” Donovan said. “Now I do think we have potential to maybe get there. We’re not there yet. I think if we can get there and be hard to score against, now we’re playing to our strengths because now missed shots lead to transition for us and I think we’re fast, we’re athletic, we’re long, we’re explosive and a lot of guys can handle the ball and we can pass it. Once you’re able to do that you’re able to get the press on.”

And when the press is going, the helter skelter style that the Gators play so well becomes totally disruptive for the other team. They can’t get open shots. They can’t find teammates to pass to. They’re always looking for that other Gator to bring the double team and hoping and praying that one of their teammates will bail him out.

It happened to the Gamecocks whenever the Gators were able to ratchet up the intensity. At the point when Mindaugas Kacinas got South Carolina’s first shot to go down at the 10:37 mark in the first half, the Gamecocks had gone through 13 possessions but had gone scoreless in 10 of them.

“You have empty possessions and when you have empty possessions on the road against the best team in your league it’s going to be hard to overcome,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin.

There were stretches when the Gators were the ones coming up empty but they found a way to regain their intensity. When South Carolina closed the gap to 43-35 in the second half the Gators flipped the switches and suddenly they got the intensity going again.

Scottie Wilbekin, who left the game with a sprained ankle with 2:39 remaining in the game, nailed a 3-pointer and Young followed with a jump hook. After Desmond Ringer scored for South Carolina, Dorian Finney Smith scored on consecutive possessions for a 52-37 lead with 11:35 to go in the game. Brenton Williams gave the Gamecocks a brief respite with a 3-pointer with 10:14 to go but the Gators countered with 9-0 run, the highlight of which was a steal and a coast to coast layup by Young – that not only sealed the win but showed what happens when the defensive intensity amps up.

“We have to play for 40 minutes and stay focused and locked in on our goal of becoming great and becoming champions – not just winning a game but helping ourselves get better every single day,” Young said.

Playing hard with focus and intensity on both ends of the floor for 40 minutes. Such a concept.

If the Gators can find a way to start a game focuses with intensity and then maintain it for 40 minutes, then Young and the Gators can have the championship they’re looking for.

Greatness comes with a price and at some point the Gators have to decide they’re willing to pay the price to achieve it.

WILBEKIN UPDATE: Scottie Wilbekin left the game with 2:39 to go with a sprained ankle. There was no report on the severity post game although Donovan said he didn’t expect that Wilbekin will practice Thursday. The Gators will leave Friday afternoon for a Saturday game with Arkansas (11-3, 0-1 SEC), which lost, 69-53, to Texas A&M on the road Wednesday night.

GAME NOTES: Wilbekin led the Gators with 17 points. He hit 5-11 from the field, 3-6 from the 3-point line and 4-4 from the foul line while also dishing out three assists. Casey Prather and Young each scored 13. For Prather it was the 14th consecutive game in double figures … Young was Florida’s leading rebounder with six … The Gators came up with 10 steals, led by Young with three … Florida shot 57.8% from the field (26-45) but only 26.3% from the 3-point line (5-19) … Florida outscored the Gamecocks, 40-16, in the paint and 22-13 off turnovers.

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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.