There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!
That’s what Kansas must have been thinking midway through the first half when a tornado named Florida had the Jayhawks wondering if Auntie Em would remember to pick them up at the airport when they got back to Lawrence.
The tornado was a 1-3-1 zone trap that Florida coach Billy Donovan sprung on the Jayhawks to take advantage of their smaller guards. Florida put 6-6 Casey Prather at the top of the trap, with 6-8 Will Yeguete and 6-8 Dorian Finney-Smith on the wings and 6-9 Patric Young in the middle. The smallest Gator in the lineup – 6-2 Scottie Wilbekin – ran the baseline where his quickness to the ball created traps in the corner.
“With (Frank) Mason and (Nadir) Tharpe – they’re not big guards height-wise – I thought it was difficult for them to throw over and around our guys,” Donovan said. “Our length caused some issues for them.”
If by issues you mean turnovers, try 16 of them in the first half. Florida turned those 16 Kansas turnovers into 18 points as the Gators raced out to a 36-21 halftime lead. It’s a good thing the Gators got that 15-point lead at the break because Kansas was the one that played like a tornado down the stretch while the 19th-ranked Gators were clanking enough free throws off the iron to qualify for a steelworkers’ union card. The Gators went 10-19 from the foul line in the final seven minutes, just enough makes to stay ahead of the 13th-ranked Jayhawks.
“I think that anything that could go wrong went wrong [in the first half],” Kansas coach Bill Self said after his 13th-ranked Jayhawks dropped a 67-61 decision to Florida (7-2) before a sellout crowd of 12,423 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. “It’s just sad that you have to get down like that before you come out and play with reckless abandonment.”
Kansas played admirably down the stretch when the Jayhawks cut Florida’s margin down to as few as four points, but Florida hit just enough free throws – two by freshman Kasey Hill with 8.5 seconds to go to clinch – to keep the game out of reach. Had the Gators played the second half like they did in the first when they took control of the game, this would have been a woodshed beating. Florida’s missed free throws are the only thing that really made this one close.
Where the game was won was during an 8:41 stretch in the first half when Florida turned a 10-3 deficit into a 24-10 lead with 21 straight points, most of them the end result of that 1-3-1 trap that helped produce seven turnovers and 0-5 shooting during that lethal run.
It was after the under-16 media time out that Donovan unleashed the 1-3-1. In the first four minutes the Gators had dabbled with a man-to-man, some full court pressure and even a little bit of 2-3 zone, but the 1-3-1 turned the game sharply in favor of Florida.
“At the 16 minute time out we kind of really started to play really, really well and I wanted to get to it,” Donovan said. “I was trying to throw as many defenses as we could at them. The 1-3-1 was the best.”
The design of the 1-3-1 was to take away the middle and force the Kansas point guard to the wing and into the waiting arms of either Finney-Smith or Yeguete. As soon as either Mason or Tharpe crossed the midcourt line, the Gators ran Prather. His long arms kept the ball from going to the middle and forced them to dribble to the wing where there was backside help. Once the trap was sprung, Young and the other 6-8 wing rotated to form a tall wall that took away the middle and forced Mason and Tharpe to try to lob the ball over the top and into the corner. When the ball got to the corner, Wilbekin ran to the receiver and got backside help from the wing to form the wing another trap.
Kansas played as if it had never seen something so exotic.
“They really didn’t know what to do against our 1-3-1 with Doe-Doe (Finney-Smith) and Will and Casey’s length out there,” Wilbekin said.
They also didn’t know what to do about Wilbekin. When he wasn’t keying the defense, he was attacking the Jayhawks from the point. Just as they had no answer for the 1-3-1, the Jayhawks had no one capable of stopping Wilbekin, who had seven points, one assist, one steal and at least four deflections during the run.
The offensive burst was the result of the defensive intensity.
“When we went big with a 1-3-1 zone, that kind of opened up the game for us a little bit,” Donovan said.
He would have stuck with the zone throughout the game, except that fouls and fatigue began to take a toll, particularly at the end of the half. Florida led by 18, 32-14, on a conventional three-point play by Young with 4:14 to go in the half, but Donovan had to go 2-3 in the final three minutes and that let Kansas whittle the lead back to 15 (36-21) at the break.
“I would have liked to have stayed a little longer with the 1-3-1 in the first half but the problem was some of those guys were on the floor a little bit too long and we had some guys pick up fouls so we had to get out of it,” Donovan said.
Conscious of the fouls and fatigue – Florida played with a seven-man rotation except for one minute off the bench by Jacob Kurtz at the end of the first half – Donovan tried a 2-3 zone to start the second half but Kansas solved that quickly and rattled off an 11-5 run to cut Florida’s lead down to a more manageable nine (41-32).
Kansas definitely had the momentum while Florida lacked energy. It was enough that Donovan questioned the cause post game.
“I just didn’t like our intensity level and I can’t figure it out,” Donovan said. “Is it a fatigue issue because we’re not playing a lot of guys and guys are playing too many minutes, or is it something else?”
Donovan went back to the 1-3-1 and it worked well enough for the Gators to stretch the lead back to 12 (52-40) with 7:36 to go, but again fouls and fatigue set in. When the Gators went 2-3 or man-to-man, Kansas found shooters.
Still, the game was ready to be put away when Wilbekin broke free for a layup and got fouled with 5:44 to go, giving the Gators a chance to go up by 13. But Wilbekin’s foul shot banged off the iron, an omen of things to come.
When Prather scored on a tip-in with 3:09 to go, the Gators once again held a 12-point lead at 56-44, but that was the last time the Gators scored from the field. From that point on, it was a foul marathon. Kansas was willing to trade fouls for a chance to knock down shots at the other end.
The strategy almost worked because Kansas was able to parlay possessions into three three-pointers from Andrew Wiggins while the Gators struggled to make their free throws. In the final 2:11, the Gators went 10-14 from the line and those misses were just what the Jayhawks needed to turn it into a white knuckled but time favored the Gators. When Hill nailed his two free throws with 8.5 seconds left, the Gators were up by six and Kansas was down two possessions.
It wasn’t the ending that anyone forecast when the Gators were up by 15 at the half, but it was a signature win over a blue blood program with a national ESPN audience watching.
GAME NOTES: The Gators are off until next Tuesday when they travel to New York to face Memphis … Wilbekin finished the game with 18 points, six assists and four steals … Finney-Smith contributed 15 for the Gators while Young and Prather (10-12 from the foul line) each had 12 … Prather led Florida with eight rebounds … Kansas outrebounded the Gators, 40-30 … Florida shot 37% for the game from the field overall and 50% (7-14) from the three-point line … Florida scored 28 points off 24 Kansas turnovers. The Gators only turned the ball over eight times and Kansas managed only four points off the miscues … Wiggins led Kansas with 26 points and 11 rebounds.