What some call a nail-biter, a cardiac caper, an edge of your seat stresser, Gator fans call standard. It was another typical Gator game today. Ebbing and flowing and taking the game to its final moments and then stamping it with a victory like they were born to do it.
Same old, same old.
The seeming inevitability of the positive outcome, however does nothing to diminish the drama. The fan stress and desperation of being down double digits, the thrill of turning it around into a victory. It never gets old and it never gets stale. That is the great thing about college basketball: truly anything can happen – at any time – so when you win, it is a new discovery, a new relief, a new elation every single time.
Even when it is old hat.
And the reason it is such old hat to this team – the reason it seems to the casual observer to be so routine amid the constant struggle for every loose ball, every rebound and every open look – is the recurring senior moments this team experiences.
Sticking to the Script
The opening half featured a lot of fighting by the Gators without a lot of positive results. Some struggling to get a handle on what UT was doing. Not enough exerting of the Gator will. A little lack of smart aggression. Just enough to keep the opponent in the game or slide to a deficit. We’ve seen this movie before. Sometimes it takes Florida about a half to find their stroke and figure out where to apply the pain points to the competition. And as an athletic team with multiple good ball handlers, UT is not as susceptible to the dangers of the Gators’ press defense as are many opponents.
But the old men have made this second nature. And the most junior of the seniors again blazed the path to victory today. In fact, according to Billy Donovan, one of the reasons the first half was not more successful was that he tried to do too much. But eventually the league’s best player dialed it in.
Here’s why Scottie Wilbekin is not only the SEC Player of the Year, but lapped the field for that award this season. Twice. With a 7-point deficit hanging over the Gators and UT rolling in another easy layup, the Gators were in a spit of trouble just under the 9-minute mark of the first half. But the layup rolled out and the Gators ran the floor to a quick transition 3 by Wilbekin. Then a steal followed by another eyeblink break and a Casey Prather dunk. Next trip down the court, another quick steal. Even though that steal resulted in a bad pass out of bounds, it was a new ballgame. Seconds later it was a 2-point game again and the tiny Tennessee fan contingent ceded momentum and vocal volume to the Florida pep band, which sadly was the only Gator bloc detectible anywhere in the Georgia Dome today.
That’s the thing. Scottie doesn’t just make great plays. He makes timely plays. He makes dagger plays. He makes clutch plays. Plays timed exactly when the Gators have needed them this year. He has an impeccable feel for the game, but not only when there is an opportunity for a steal; a deep trey; a dazzling, impossible drive to the rim. He also has an innate feel for exactly *when* to make these plays. When they are needed and when they will turn the momentum or take over a game. When they will ignite his team and deflate the opponent. And then he goes out and makes them.
Now, the Tennessee lead slowly ballooned back up, all the way to a 10-point lead before halftime, but the uneven officiating had a lot to do with that. It was an awkward imbalance of one official giving UT everything on one end and the other two trying to give it back on the other end. But allowing Tennessee to do things like start their layup travels from midcourt does not balance evenly with whistling hard hacks underneath that keep our shots out of the goal. Billy was working the crew tirelessly, but at least one zebra was pretty firmly dug in.
Of course the Volunteers were also simply outplaying Florida in the first half. The Gator defense was a step slow-footed and the offense was out of sync. But as the final seconds, in fact the final second, drained off the first half game clock, there was senior Scottie Wilbekin facing down the defender blanketing him close enough to share his bubble gum, dropping in a bottom-of-the-net 3-ball to cut the lead to seven. There is a huge difference between a halftime differential of 7 and that of double digits. And it was a mental kick in the stomach for a Vols team that had earned a double-digit halftime lead…but didn’t get to keep it. Instead they started the second half with an uncomfortable lead and a halftime full of ghosts and boogiemen lurking in the back of their minds – that 3-pointer providing all of the necessary supernatural imagery. And just think how the final minutes of the game would have been different for the Gators without those three points in the bank.
The second half started with 4 quick unanswered points by Florida, a steal and a block and the game was back to a basically even contest. A few seconds later the Gators had the lead.
The halftime turnarounds this season are a credit to Billy Donovan’s coaching. Not just Xs and Ox, but the ability to get the team to start enjoying the game. To play more relaxed and with a significantly higher level of energy. Old people can get ornery and sometimes need to be brought back to their happy place. That’s all it takes for this team to win and dominate. But in this game, the whole second half turnaround started at the end of the first half with that iceman trey from Scottie. Seniors are always cashing in on early bird specials.
As soon as the Gators took the lead, though they fell into a 3-ball default offense and missed three of them, giving Tennessee the lead back. But that’s when Billy took a timeout and did what Billy does. Refocus, re-set the strategy, remind them of the directives and realign the plan to adapt to Tennessee’s halftime adjustments. Senior citizens can be forgetful. And of course to re-prime the pump: keep the energy flowing. A few minutes later, the lead was back with the good guys.
The game sustained that 2-point Gator advantage for what seemed to be an hour. The offense kept looking for a kill shot – and missing it by scant inches again and again – but the defense simply would not allow Tennessee to retake the lead throughout the offense’s inability to find the net. Two free throws could have done it, but instead two Gator-skin bricks led to two Vol free throws to tie the game. Then a couple of fouls against UT on the same play, Florida makes all four shots. Lead to four. Under five minutes to go. They enter The Mode. The survive and advance mode.
The Senior Moment Kicks In
But the offensive woes let UT hang around so long that eventually they tied it up yet again with just over two minutes left in the game.
Time for the seniors to take over.
Cue the Patric Young hook. Cue the swarming Will Yeguete defense. Cue the silky Casey Prather drive and two free throws. A tie game becomes a 2-possession Gator lead with 1:21 to go. If not for the worst call I have seen in years, the Gators likely would have extended that lead on the ensuing possession. But luckily another series of exceptional defense earned the ball back for the Gators and with under a minute to go, one shot would end the game. As it played out, the fourth senior went to the line to ice the game with 14.9 second left. Scottie dropped them both in and it came full circle when Patric Young bookended the Senior Moment by grabbing the last needed rebound at the other end. The old sage tossed in two more free throws for good measure.
After the game, when asked what he did to boost Florida’s energy and performance in the last five minutes of the game, Coach Donovan said he shortened the bench. He put it on the starting seniors to close things out and they finished the drill on both ends of the court. He told them it was their ballgame. And they played their game.
But especially on the defensive side. One of the reasons Florida is such an under-publicized #1 team this year is that so much of their power comes from the defensive side of the ball. Stuff that does not make the architects of highlight reels feel all fluttery in their tummies. How good was the Gator defense tonight down the stretch? Tennessee only converted one field goal in the final 12:52 of the game. And it was a decently contested shot. That’s how good they played. That’s how good they are. Best defense in the nation.
But then, old folks are always overly protective of their things. And right now, the piece of property they are looking to lock in the antique glass-shuttered hutch is the SEC tournament championship trophy.
Or maybe it would be better suited elsewhere. It would look so good next to the plastic-covered paisley couch.