The team that had to grind out wins at home against Auburn and then on the road at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt is not the Florida team Billy Donovan wanted to see Saturday when LSU paid a visit to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Winning certainly is better than the alternative, but Donovan is never happy when he knows his team can do so much better, so the two practice days prior to the Gators’ 79-61 win over the Tigers were all about re-establishing just who they were.
“Sometimes when everything looks rosy on the outside of all these different things and people look at the bottom line result, I’m still looking at how is our team playing?” Donovan said in his post-game remarks after the #1-ranked Gators (27-2, 16-0 SEC) finished off the Tigers in what can only be called a statement game. “I didn’t feel like we played up to our ability and our potential. I think if you look at our defensive numbers the last few games from the 3-point line, to 2-point field goal percentage, it wasn’t great. I told our guys you’ve got all these things out there that are swirling around about our team that have nothing to do with how we’re playing and right now we need to be playing better basketball. We’re not playing well.”
All that changed Saturday afternoon. For the first time in two weeks the Gators played a complete game. In winning their 21st straight game and 31st consecutive home game, the Gators looked like and played like the best team in the country.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Scottie Wilbekin said after scoring 11 points and handing our four assists. “There are only two games left now [in the regular season]. We want to finish out strong.”
Finishing out strong brought about a confluence of offense, defense, emotions and focus. It turned the Gators from pedestrian, grind it out types to play hard, play fast types who showed a killer-instinct. Florida was at its formidable best. LSU really didn’t stand a chance.
Offensively, the Gators didn’t force shots and when they were open, they put the ball in the basket. Florida shot 57.4% overall (31-54) and 56.5% from the 3-point line (13-23). Defensively, they brought the double teams in the post so quickly that LSU either forced up shots or turned the ball over in confusion while trying to pass the ball through the maze of hands swiping at the ball. LSU turned the ball over 15 times while shooting 38.3% (23-60) from the field and only 33% from the 3-point line.
There was focus and more important, the emotional level was exactly where Donovan wanted it to be.
“The hardest part for our guys the last two weeks is getting to an emotional level,” Donovan said. “Physically we’re fine but it is an emotional grind every day and getting themselves ready for that level is the challenging piece for our team.”
Charged up emotionally and fully focused, the Gators played like a team on a mission. It was 8-0 before LSU finally got into the scoring column. The ball moved so crisply around the perimeter that it seemed everybody was open, but more importantly, open guys were passing up shots to get the ball to someone who had a better one. Scottie Wilbekin drilled a 3-ball and then Michael Frazier got one. Wilbekin got another one, then DeVon Walker connected and Dorian Finney-Smith got the first of the four he knocked down on the day.
It was 21-9, just 10 minutes into the game and the only question was would the Gators let off the gas pedal or would they amp up the intensity?
Leading 21-14, Frazier hit two 3-pointers and DeVon Walker got another one as the Gators ran off 11 straight points. It was 41-25 at the half.
The second half was more of the same.
Finney-Smith knocked down another 3-ball with 16:26 to go to give the Gators their first 20-point lead of the night at 52-30 with 16:26 left in the game. The lead stretched all the way to 29 (77-48) when Frazier drove the baseline and dunked with 2:55 to go in the game.
That the Tigers managed to outscore Florida’s backups 13-2 in the final couple of minutes was of no consequence. This game had been over since the first 10 minutes.
This is what Donovan had been looking for – a focused team, in full control of its emotions, putting together two halves of basketball and playing with intensity on both ends of the court.
This was no fluke. This was not a case of an LSU team tanking a game to get the season over. The Tigers came to the O-Dome needing a signature win to get on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble but they were completely overwhelmed by a Florida team that wasn’t concerned about rankings, winning streaks or any outside distractions.
This was a Florida team that needed to make a statement, that needed to break out of a grind it out rut. This is a team that needed to elevate its game to a whole new level.
“With what we’re dealing with right now I’ve seen players and teams lose their way and lose their identity,” Donovan said. “I think it’s very, very easy for that to happen. You lose who you are.
“So who have we been? We’ve been a team that has gone through this process since the season started. We’ve worked hard. We’ve been the same each and every day in practice. We’ve strived to get better. We’ve strived to be the best we can be. They give a great effort but the minute you start losing sight of who you are because of the other stuff, sometimes it’s hard to regain your identity.”
The Gators have two games remaining in the regular season. They’ve already eclipsed the school record for regular season wins – the LSU beatdown was Florida’s 27th — and they have already won the Southeastern Conference championship and clinched the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament. What Donovan wants is for the Gators to turn up the heat on the rest of the league by playing the next two games – at South Carolina Wednesday and then Kentucky at home next Saturday – with the same level of emotion and focus that they used to throw LSU into the ditch.
What he wants is for the Gators to understand that there is still plenty to play for even before the shift is into the one-and-done mode that is required once tournament play begins.
“The biggest thing is there are things out there for us to chase,” Donovan said. “What are we going to chase right now? What are we going to go after? They’re chasing something right now. There is an opportunity for them to come back and continue on with what they are doing. There are opportunities out there for them to chase things that hopefully keeps them motivated and excited during this time of year because we’ve got seven days left.”
GAME NOTES: For the second straight game, Finney-Smith was the leading scorer. His 16-point effort included 4-8 from the 3-point line. Frazier (4-6 from the 3-point line) and Prather both scored 14 while Wilbekin (3-5 from the 3-point line) chipped in with 11 … Kasey Hill, playing his first game since the win over Kentucky on February 15, scored four points and dished out five assists … In his longest stint of the season, Chris Walker came off the bench to score two points, grab six rebounds and block one shot … Florida outscored LSU, 28-2, off the bench.