Wounded Gators rally past Hogs in overtime

The coaching move of the game in a game that Billy Donovan was at his coaching best was the one Donovan made to go zone in the last 20 seconds of Florida’s 84-82 overtime win over Arkansas at Bud Walton Arena.

With Scottie Wilbekin at the foul line and Florida leading 81-79 with 21.9 seconds to go in the extra period, Donovan subtly put the Gators in a 2-3 zone that effectively cut off the baseline where Alandise Harris had scored on drives on the Razorbacks previous two possessions. When Wilbekin went 0-2 from the line, the Razorbacks hustled the ball down the floor and not surprisingly went straight to Harris, who was expecting a man-to-man look. Instead there was a zone, help on the baseline and Harris was cut off. He threw up a weak jumper with 10 seconds to go that Wilbekin rebounded. Fouled with six seconds to go, Wilbekin redeemed himself for the previous two misses by knocking down the two foul shots that provided the final margin of victory.

“They (Arkansas) were scoring too quickly,” Donvan explained post game on the Florida Radio Network. “We didn’t want to foul but you didn’t want them to drive to the basket and get dunks.”

This was a game that the 10th-ranked Gators (13-2, 2-0 SEC) had no business winning. Leading scorer Casey Prather sat out the game with a swollen knee from a bone bruise suffered in Florida’s Wednesday night win over South Carolina. Wilbekin, who sprained his ankle in the game, and Patric Young, who didn’t practice on Thursday or Friday due to tendonitis in his knees, were dressed but Donovan had no idea how much he would get out of them.

That meant a starting lineup that included Dorian Finney-Smith playing center, DeVon Walker playing Prather’s small forward wing and freshman Kasey Hill on the point. That was the start of a continuous chess match that Donovan played with Arkansas (11-4, 0-2 SEC) coach Mike Anderson. Every move that Anderson made, Donovan had a counter. Florida’s win was as much about Donovan’s ability to juggle his roster and find combinations that would work as it was the heroics of Wilbekin and Finney-Smith.

Anderson ran an 11-man bench at the Gators in waves. Donovan had to counter with an 8-man bench and lineups that were sometimes mismatched. The Gators fouled way too much – Young, Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier all spent far too many first half minutes on the bench with two fouls – and they turned it over way too much — 17 times, eight in the first 15 minutes alone.

Finney-Smith came up with career highs of 22 points and 15 rebounds. He hit a critical 3-pointer in overtime as well as both of his free throws during the extra time.

Wilbekin? All he did was hit a 10-foot bank shot when he pulled up off the drive with two seconds to go that tied the game at 66-66 to send it into overtime and hit nine of Florida’s 18 overtime points on a 3-pointer and 6-8 from the foul line. The 3-pointer with 3:50 to go in overtime gave the Gators a 71-66 lead and was preceded by a Wilbekin steal when he baited Fred Gulley into trying to get the ball in the paint to Bobby Portis. Wilbekin stepped in front to pick off the pass, then made the Razorbacks pay at the other end when he nailed the 3-ball.

It was enough to put an end to a 23-game home court winning streak by Arkansas and it got the Gators off to a 2-0 start in SEC play.

There were other heroes.

Young, playing with sore knees and foul troubles, hit a critical layup off a Kasey Hill pass with 4:36 to go in regulation to cut the Arkansas lead to 64-59 and got the Gators started on the comeback trail.

“We were dead in the water,” Donovan explained. “We were down by 5 with three minutes to go in the game.”

Hill came up with an off-balance runner in the lane with 2:44 to go to bring it back to a one-possession game. Frazier, who hadn’t scored in more than six minutes, knocked down a critical 3-ball with 1:49 to go to tie the score at 64-64.

In the first half when Arkansas raced out to a 32-25 lead and seemed to have all the momentum, Finney-Smith scored six of Florida’s final 10 points of the half and Jacob Kurtz came up with two with 1:44 to go.

The Gators trailed, 36-35, at the half, but this was a game that could have gotten out of hand if not for Donovan’s constant maneuvering. In the first eight minutes of the game, Donovan went man-to-man and the result was foul trouble. He went zone almost exclusively from that point onward. When DeVon Walker was in the game, the Gators went 1-3-1. When Hill and Wilbekin were the backcourt, he went 2-3. That took the 3-point line out and forced Arkansas out of its normal offensive flow.

In the final five minutes of the half, Donovan gambled that Young and Frazier could play in the zone without fouling and that turned out to be another calculated gamble that paid off.

“We got some really good production from those guys without them fouling and we were able to get the lead back down to one at the half,” Donovan said.

The Gators spent much of the second half chasing the Razorbacks but they never let them get on a knockout run, which proved critical. Florida was down five and had given up consecutive 3-pointers to Rashad Madden when Donovan went zone with 11:38 to go in regulation. Madden got another three in regulation with 7:12 to go to stretch the Arkansas lead to 60-55, but the Gators were in man-to-man after a turnover on that one. When the Gators went man-to-man in the last three minutes, Harris burned them on consecutive possessions on the baseline. Donovan countered that with the zone in the last 20 seconds, which confused Harris and created the opportunity for Wilbekin to tie the game.

It will be a quick turnaround for the Gators, who are back in action at the O-Dome Tuesday night when Georgia comes to town. There will be the usual bumps and bruises to contend with plus Young’s tendonitis and Prather’s swollen knee.

“We’ve got tomorrow and Monday to get ready for Georgia,” Donovan said.

If Saturday proved anything, it is that the Gators should be more than ready when the Bulldogs come to town.

GAME NOTES:  Wilbekin scored 18 points and was 8-10 from the foul line for the game. Frazier scored 15 and was 4-8 from the 3-point line while Young had 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench … Finney-Smith had three assists and three steals in addition to his 22 points and 15 rebounds … Walker contributed six rebounds, Hill had five assists and Kurtz gave the Gators four valuable points … Will Yeguete gave the Gators seven points and five rebounds.

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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.