“Hey! Hey hey hey-O!!! Hey!”
The incessant chatter was coming from a West Virginia Mountaineers defender as he stayed in the face of Florida Gators basketball forward Devin Robinson. The Gators sophomore was looking for his options on an inbound pass in the first half of Florida’s win over WVU and the Mountaineers legendary press was doing its best to work its magic.
Finding a break in the maddening arm waving though, Robinson threw in a pass and the Gators got back into play.
That was par for the course throughout the game.
“I got hit in the nose, then elbow,” explained away KeVaughn Allen, who actually received the foul on that particular play. He then went to the bench only to return a couple of minutes later, in route to his 19 points.
Kevarrius Hayes lay writhing on the ground for almost five minutes, left for the locker room and then returned to help the Gators grab 21 defensive rebounds against the best offensive rebounding team in the country who tallied 13.
Kasey Hill was gushing blood like a character in a scream film during the first half then came back with a broken nose to help finish off the Mountaineers. This in addition to being kneaded nettled and pushed by a defender all night.
But Florida had prepared for this. They knew coming in that WVU was the epitome of a tough, hard-nosed team—as evident by the fact that there was an uncommon skirmish before tip off that caused the teams to be separated and fueled the Gators—and the plan was simple with one point that had a huge star next to it—beat them at their own game.
“I think there was enough built in motivation,” said head coach Mike White when referencing that altercation and required tenacity for the game.
“Playing a top-10 team, playing a team that we respect as a staff as much as we do in terms of their approach, how hard they play, how physical they play, how well they defend, how incredible they are on the offensive glass, those are things we shoved down our guys throats the last couple of days. They’ve seen a lot of film on these guys and we knew that if we didn’t come with as much mental and physical toughness as we’ve played with all year—and probably match the Michigan State game for us in that regard—it could get ugly for us so maybe that little amount of fear was used as motivation as well.”
Recognizing WVU’s grit and exceeding it is what it came down to according to guard Brandone Francis-Ramirez-“Getting stops, playing harder, staying together, especially when guys got a travel foul… To me that’s one of the toughest teams in the nation you know but we looked way tougher than they did.”
For every circus act that a West Virginia defender tried to put on to negate an inbounds, there was a pass rivaling an Annie-Over game to get past it.
“They do a good job of denying passes. Give them all the credit, that’s just something they’re good at and we eliminated that tonight,” explained forward Dorian Finney-Smith.
“I think they pressed us almost the whole game expect for like 5 possessions maybe,” added guard Chris Chiozza.
“But they’re the leading team in the country in pressing; they press the most out of any team so we knew we had to get ready for that.”
Every trip that the Mountaineers took to the boards, a Florida defender was draped over them like a wet blanket. And for every foul that WVU drew, the Gators pulled their own and then followed by actually hitting their free throw shots.
West Virginia has a penchant for drawing fouls and the running joke is that the Gators have a penchant for not capitalizing on theirs. But on Saturday night in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Mike White’s assurance that they practice free throws showed, when Florida went 24-31 to outscore WVU (14-16) at the line.
“We showed each other what we’re capable off. We’re not always gonna make shots but we can always defend like we did tonight,” said Finney-Smith and that summed up the game more than any other comment could, because this win was all of the things that this Florida Gators basketball team has seemingly done well this season, turned up to the nth degree and then combined with a few new things that paid off.
One of those new things was going small. In order to effectively combat the Press Virginia style in every way, White trotted out three guards to start the game.
“We started 3 guards, to handle the press today and I think we did a great job of it,” said Chiozza.
“Except for like 2 or 3 times, we did a great job of getting open, handling their press.”
Playing three guards, and missing forward Justin Leon who had to sit out due to concussion protocol, also meant bringing Allen down into the paint more on defense. White mentioned before the game that he would be asking much more of KeVaughn on the glass and often during the game itself could be heard screaming for the freshman to drop down “to the rim! To the rim!”
The perpetually quiet Allen didn’t have much to say on this following the game, just a smirk along with, “at first it was difficult, but we work on it a lot in practice but I think I did a good job.”
He did, helping the Gators to the aforementioned numbers of 21 defensive rebounds against the best offensive rebounding team in the country.
There was also help from Schuyler Rimmer, who stepped in for John Egbunu when the big man got in foul trouble, and pulled down a team high 6 rebounds.
Then there was Brandone Francis-Ramirez who was 5-40 from beyond the arc coming into Saturday. After hitting one 3 in the first half though, he seemed to find his stroke and finished the day a perfect 3-3 from downtown.
“It felt good, it felt good. I haven’t felt that feeling in a long time,” said the smiling Francis-Ramirez.
“I can’t worry about my percentages anymore. I can just control what I can control. Just work hard in silence, hopefully it’ll pay off and the work [will] make all the noise.”
It helped lead the Gators to a staggering 12-20 (60%) from 3 overall; staggering because coming into the game the Mountaineers stingy 3-point defense had only been allowing 4.5 three’s per game, 1st in the nation.
“I think the biggest thing is they shot 60% from 3, which they haven’t done, and we haven’t given up,” summed up WVU head coach Bob Huggins.
“With the way it was going in, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Mike hadn’t hit one.”
In all four players hit from 3, including Doe-Doe who went 5-7.
“He’s a good player,” Huggins said of Finney-Smith.
“I think everybody in the country knows he’s a good player. He shot it well today. When he shoots it well, they’re, he’s good; when they can get you spread and make shots, but that’s the same with most people. You make perimeter shots, you get people spread it’s a heck of a lot easier game.”
While easy may be putting it lightly, it was certainly the right game for the Florida Gators basketball team at this point in time. They went toe to toe with arguably the toughest team in America and they beat them. They did it by outmatching West Virginia at their own game, throwing in wrinkles of their own and bringing everything together in a way that White and his guys have been searching for all season.
It paid off in a big way; now the Gators just need to add a few more convincing wins and they might be able to open that closet to dig out the ole dancing shoes.
They’ll get their next shot (and swing back into SEC play) when the Arkansas Razorbacks come to town on Wednesday February 3. Tip off is set for 7pm on the SEC Network, and as always follow along with GatorCountry.com for full updates and coverage.