At this point in the season, Amanda Butler doesn’t expect her gang that can’t shoot straight to suddenly go on a tear and start knocking down shots. The Gators are what they are — undersized, not really quick enough and certainly not a very good shooting team — but they will scratch and claw and battle bell to bell and on nights like the one they had Sunday, that more than compensates for what they don’t have.
The Gators shot 33 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from the three-point line Sunday, the kind of numbers that can get you beaten in a hurry in the Southeastern Conference. But those numbers were dwarfed by another set of numbers which told the tale of Florida’s 64-57 upset of 20th-ranked Georgia at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Although Florida (14-13, 7-7 SEC) started no one taller than 5-10 against Bulldogs (20-7, 7-7 SEC), who started a 6-5 center and a 6-2 power forward and came off the bench at 6-3, 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 and 6-1, the Gators somehow outrebounded Georgia 38-33. The more telling stat was on the offensive boards where the Gators outfought the Bulldogs for 17 extra chances that were the equivalent of moving the chains in a football game because they extended possessions and took another 30 seconds off the clock.
“They [Georgia] are such a talented offensive team and they have five kids on the floor who can score more than one way,” Butler said. “When we had our lead and we went into that last media [time out] under four — I think it was at 3:30 if I remember correctly — we talked about how kind of like a football game, that time of possession was going to dictate the outcome and the longer we could have the ball the better chance we were going to have to win.”
Coming out of that media time out, the Gators held a precarious seven-point lead that was sliced to five (56-51) on a driving bank shot by Ashley Houts with 3:22 remaining. On Florida’s next possession, the Gators ate nearly a minute of clock because they simply outhustled the Bulldogs for offensive rebounds. Steffi Sorenson got one with 3:07 left and Jennifer George came up with another one with 2:24 to go. George tried to go back up with hers, got fouled and knocked down a free throw. The point George got at the foul line was important because it meant two Georgia threes could only tie the game, but there was no way Georgia could replace those 58 ticks off the clock.
In the final two minutes of the game, the Gators hit 7-10 from the foul line, came up with two more offensive rebounds and three steals to ensure that Georgia was going down. The final two minutes were important, but actually no different than the entire game.
Florida couldn’t shoot but the Gators knew how to hustle and they parlayed hustle and a good measure of toughness into one of the best wins of a season that has been marred by injuries, which have forced them to battle taller teams with an undersized lineup. Sunday, the Gators went 5-10, 5-10, 5-10 across the front line in the starting lineup.
“We’re a little bit used to shooting 29 percent this year so we’ve had to find other ways to win,” Butler said. “So that wasn’t a new feeling for us.”
In addition to outscrapping the Bulldogs on the boards, finding ways to win meant winning probably 80 percent of the loose ball situations. It meant playing such a tough and active zone that Georgia never got into any kind of a shooting rhythm and when the Bulldogs tried to go inside, there were Gators coming from all directions slapping at the ball and tipping it away. Even when the Gators didn’t come up with steals on the interior passes, they knocked the ball back outside, where the Bulldogs were no better than the Gators.
Georgia shot a little bit better from the field — 42.9 percent — but take away the inside game of 6-2 Porsha Phillips (7-11 from the field) and 6-2 Jasmine Hassell (4-4) and things evened up considerably. From the three-point line, the Bulldogs managed just 6-22. Their three top bombers from long range — Houts (2-7), Jasmine James (0-5) and Jaleesa Rhoden (1-4) — were a combined 3-16.
The Bulldogs outscored the Gators 28-14 in the paint and 8-2 on the fast break, but Florida outscored the Bulldogs 17-4 off turnovers and 13-8 on second chance points.
Florida went stone cold from long range midway through the second half. The Gators rode Steffi Sorenson’s hot hand — 3-4 on threes in the first half; 5-9 for the game — to a 33-21 halftime lead and that expanded to as many as 14 points on a couple of occasions in the second half.
Sorenson hit the last three with 8:49 to go and that gave the Gators a 55-41 lead. That was also the last time the Gators scored from the field. The Gators went 0-9 from the field the rest of the way and 0-5 on three-balls, but they held off Georgia’s rally because they knocked down enough free throws — 9-15 in the final 8:49 — to maintain the lead.
Although the Gators struggled at the line down the stretch, they were 13-14 the rest of the game. That 15-point difference at the foul line (Florida was 22-29 for the game; Georgia was 7-9) made up for the fact Georgia actually hit five more shots from the field than the Gators.
Pretty it wasn’t but Butler wasn’t going to give a win back just because it didn’t measure up on the beauty meter. In a season in which the shots haven’t fallen and injuries have taken a severe toll (most recently 6-4 Azania Stewart was lost for the season with a stress fracture in her foot), the Gators have had some monumental struggles, but Sunday they compensated for all the things they weren’t by simply being what they are — tough and determined, the kind of team that believes that if it wins the floor burn battle that it can make up for a multitude of deficiencies.
“I hope they look at tonight’s performance and really embrace the things that we did well,” Butler said. “This is who you are. This is what Florida basketball looks like this year so let’s replicate this and keep doing this. Let’s get the reward for all the time we’re putting in.”
GAME NOTES: Sorenson matched a career-high with 20 points to go with seven rebounds, four on the offensive end … Sharielle Smith added 11 points and seven rebounds and Jordan Jones scored 12 … Off the bench, George turned in a tough performance with nine points and nine rebounds …