Bench Play Elevates Gators To Top Level

AUBURN, AL — The Gators did just about everything right here in Auburn Saturday evening. Florida shot a great percentage from the field (58 percent) and beyond the arc (64 percent); they dominated the glass (37-27) and had a tremendous assist/turnover ratio (18/8).

Yet with all that going for them, I believe the key ingredient in the Gators playing “great” as opposed to playing “good” is the quality of play they get from the guys that do not start.

This time it started right away in the first half as the Gators got 13 points and 29 minutes of playing time from their reserves. Walter Hodge, who had really struggled in conference played with tremendous confidence with seven points and two assists without a turnover in eleven minutes. Chris Richard and Marreese Speights shipped in three points each and combined for three rebounds in relief of Joakim Noah and Al Horford. The Gator bench finished the game with 21 points, eight rebounds and five assists with just one turnover in 51 minutes.

Hodge’s play was particularly significant in light of his play in previous SEC games. In Florida’s first five conference tilts, Hodge averaged just 2.8 points and was shooting just 35 percent from the field and was a measly 1-for-5 behind the arc. In this game, he finished with eight points and made both of his long range shots. Hodge’s play allowed Taurean Green (35 minutes) to play a bit less, and covered Humphrey (29) after he picked up his third foul with about twelve minutes to play.

Chris Richard was also important, with eight points and five rebounds in 16 minutes on the floor. It was the second straight from effort from the senior big man after a succession of mediocre performances earlier in league play. Richard had nine points and three boards at Mississippi State Wednesday night, so the big man from Lakeland really stepped it up on Florida’s first conference road week of the season.

After the game I spoke with Billy Donovan and Walter Hodge about the improved play of the Gator bench.

LV: Walter, production has been sorta sporadic for you and the Gator bench lately. How good did it feel to see the bench deliver 13 points in the first 20 minutes?

WH: Let me tell you it felt great, man to come off the bench and help the team. Chris Richard had a great game and we need that when we’re on the road. We need the bench to come through and play hard and really help the team win

LV: You were playing so well at the start of the year, but you’ve been struggling in SEC games. What’s been the difference and what made the difference tonight?

WH: I think at the beginning of the year I was really playing loose, but when the SEC started I wasn’t getting as much minutes as I was earlier and I maybe didn’t handle it right. Now when I go in I focus on trying to play defense and do whatever I have to do to help the team?

LV: How much did it help when you knocked down that first three?

WH: It felt great because I hadn’t made a three in a long time (none the last three games) and you always feel better when you make your shots.

Billy Donovan on Hodge, Richard

“I’ve always had confidence in Walter. Walter got off to a great start this year. I thought Walter, Taurean and Lee shot the ball from the three point line and that opened up some things for Richard and Joakim and the other guys up front.”

LV: Billy, Chris Richard’s play in the SEC has been spotty. How do you feel about the way he produced tonight?

“I was really proud of him tonight, Lar. You know it’s been the last two we games. I felt like he had a great effort off the bench at Mississippi State. I’m hoping he’s realizing that being a senior now when I get in there I have to make some things happen. It was good to see him be alert and jumpy and bouncing around and doing some good things. But, as you mentioned it’s the consistency level. He’s put it back-to-back. Now let’s see if he can do it Wednesday (vs. Vanderbilt) and again on Saturday (vs. Tennessee).”