ATLANTA – They have turned grind it out basketball into a new form of art. These #1-ranked Florida Gators (31-2) don’t play Mona Lisa basketball – “We aren’t perfect,” says Billy Donovan – but there is beauty in what they do. The art is in the win no matter how flawed it might be.
Saturday’s 56-49 win over Tennessee in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament at the Georgia Dome was beautiful in the same way a Salvadore Dali painting is a masterpiece. Maybe you couldn’t figure out exactly what the Gators were doing, but in the end, they won and at this time of the year all wins are instant classics.
Even the wins in which you have to play defense with all the finesse of a butcher swinging a meat cleaver.
That’s what the Gators did to the Tennessee Vols (21-12). They matched the Vols body blow for body blow, elbow for elbow, push for push and shove for shove to get to the SEC Tournament Championship Game for the third time in four years. The Gators will face Kentucky, a 70-58 winner over Georgia in Sunday’s 3:15 p.m. final.
“We just had to go in there and be fearless,” is how Patric Young described the Florida’s defense with the game on the line.
Playing without fear, the Gators held Tennessee to one made shot from the field in the final 12:16. The Vols went 1-11 at a time when they desperately needed to get something going offensively because Florida just wouldn’t give in.
Whatever they had to do to walk away with a win, the Gators were willing to do it.
“I can’t think of any other game that we played that well defensively,” Will Yeguete said. “We were on edge. We really wanted to win and get it done. Our shots weren’t falling so to win, that’s the way we had to get it done.”
Although the Vols struggled to get anything to go in the basket, they, too, understood that if they were going to come away with a win that would have certainly taken the guesswork out of their postseason hopes – they should make the NCAA Tournament but nothing is assured at this point – it would have to be on the defensive end. So it came down to which team could squeeze out some offense – any offense – in the game’s final minutes.
Florida found just enough bullets. Tennessee shot blanks.
The turning point was a 1:17 stretch that began with a dunk by Casey Prather off a nice feed from the foul line by Dorian Finney-Smith. A Patric Young layup off a terrific entry pass by Prather cut the Tennessee lead to 43-42 with 9:21 left and then Frazier came up with a steal, ripping the ball away from Jeronne Maymon with two hands. He pushed the ball up the court to Prather, who killed his dribble at the right wing and found Frazier running the floor in transition. Frazier drained the 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Gators a 45-43 lead with 9:02 left in the game.
As if the game could get any uglier, four minutes passed before either team scored again. Tennessee missed four shots and turned the ball over twice. The Gators missed a couple of shots, missed two free throws and turned it over once.
Tennessee broke the drought with a pair of free throws with 4:57 remaining.
Eighteen seconds later, came the part where it resembled the Dali painting. No one really knows exactly what happened, but Florida came away with four free throws and Tennessee’s Jeronne Maymon found himself watching the game from the bench the rest of the way.
Maymon was whistled for his fourth foul down in the low blocks by referee Pat Adams. Apparently something was said or there was some sort of gesture because Adams lit up Maymon with a technical foul and that put him on the bench.
“They called a technical foul,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “I watched his body language. He didn’t use any curse words, swear, whatever you want to call it. He didn’t do any of that. Maybe his tone or maybe his approach and his body language caused him to get the technical but I watched his lips closely, so there was nothing derogatory that was said.”
So an element of mystery was injected.
Frazier hit the two free throws and then Young stepped to the line and hit his two. Just like that the Gators were up by four, 49-45, but Tennessee wasn’t through. Stokes hit a free throw with 4:27 to go and Jordan McRae hit his only 3-pointer of the game with 2:48 to go to tie the score at 49-49.
That was the last time Tennessee scored.
Young put the Gators ahead for good with a jump hook at the 2:24 mark to make it 51-49 and from that point onward, the story was Florida free throws and Tennessee’s inability to get an open shot against Florida’s smothering defense.
The first half was a different story. Florida only had a couple of stretches when the offense looked anything like the one that systematically dismembered Missouri the day before. Defensively, there were lapses.
Plenty of them.
“I thought we had a lot of defensive breakdowns which enabled them to kind of get down the lane and make some plays,” Donovan said about a first half in which the Gators trailed by as many as 10 points. “I thought our turnovers in the first half resulted in them getting out in transition and getting some easy scores and putting our defense in position where they had numbers.”
There was that short stretch when the Gators went on a 7-2 mini-run to trim Tennessee’s lead from seven to two, 23-21, but that was followed by an almost 7-minute drought in which the Gators were outscored 10-2. It wasn’t until Kasey Hill sliced through the Tennessee defense with 1:30 left that the Gators got back into the scoring column and by then it was 33-23.
It would have been a 10-point deficit at the half except that Wilbekin offered a glimmer of hope that things might change in the final 20 minutes when he nailed a long 3-ball from the top of the key with three seconds left, sending the Gators into the locker on the short end of a 35-28 score.
At the half, Donovan wasn’t pleased by Yeguete said his displeasure quotient was a five on a 1-10 scale.
“Oh, he’s been a lot madder than this before,” Yeguete said.
Donovan laid out a plan to turn the game around in the second half and it began with the defense.
“That was a huge point of emphasis at halftime,” Frazier said. “Be disruptive on defense and don’t let them just run through their offense. In the first half they got a lot of easy baskets. We were lackadaisical on the defensive end but we did a better job of getting an edge.”
Coming out of the break, the Gators outscored the Vols 10-2, taking their first lead – 38-37 on a Kasey Hill layup with 14:48 to go in the game – since they were up 9-7 in the first four minutes of the first half. Tennessee was quick to regain the momentum with six straight points, setting up the war that was the final 12 minutes.
The final 12 minutes are the kind that define a team. For this Florida team, it spoke volumes that whatever it took to get the win, they were going to do it.
“Everyone had to come in there and be ready to go outside themselves and give a little bit more and we did,” Young said.
The Gators did just that, and while it may not have been pretty, it certainly was beautiful in that new art grind it out way that is the signature of a season whose journey will continue.
GAME NOTES: Young led the Gators with 16 points and eight rebounds … Wilbekin had 14 and Prather 12 … At one point the Gators were 1-7 from the foul line, but they were 9-10 in the final five minutes of the game … Dorian Finney-Smith fouled out of the game and Yeguete played the final 7:39 with four fouls … Tennessee went 2-13 from the 3-point line. In two SEC Tournament games, Missouri and Tennessee have combined to go 3-26 from beyond the arc against the Gators … Florida held the Vols to 19-46 from the field (41.3%). The Gators were 21-44 overall (47.7%) and 4-11 from the 3-point line (36.4%).