Florida shaky at start of NCAA opener

ORLANDO– You’d think the Florida Gators (33-2) lost the way they looked in the locker room after the 67-55 second round victory over the Albany Great Danes (19-15). Dejected, upset, frustrated. All the adjectives you can think of to describe reserved, bordering on negative body language after only beating a vastly inferior –on paper– Albany squad by 12 points.

It started with a torrent of scoring, but not by the team with the SEC player of the year or the deadly sharpshooter who smashed school records for threes made a few weeks ago. Oftentimes it seemed like the team in the two-toned purple and yellow shorts couldn’t miss, as shot after shot continued to fall. With 7:40 remaining in the first half Albany was 10-15 from the field with 23 points on the scoreboard. When forward Luke Delvin tied the game at 28 a few minutes later the Great Danes only had six points in the paint but were shooting 57% at the time. At the same juncture Florida was shooting 59%, with 22 of 28 points coming from the painted area.

What Albany was doing wasn’t an artificially inflated field goal percentage, but a consummate lights out shooting performance, until the regression to the mean began. With 3:26 left before halftime, the Great Danes were 12-21 from the field, by half they were 12-26 with a six point deficit. Head coach Billy Donovan was less than pleased with the defensive performance in the opening stanza, in his words he was “a little bit disappointed with our defense in the first half.” Following it up by saying  he “didn’t think we defended like we normally did.”

The team’s best on-ball defender echoed his coach’s sentiments.

“Maybe we took some things for granted. Just didn’t play like we need to in the NCAA tournament,” Wilbekin said. “And I think we all know that and realize that and are going to make a better effort next time.”

The beginning of the second half should have spelled the end of the Cinderella narrative though; surely these plucky Great Danes would be soon be stiff-armed by the superior behemoth from just up the turnpike from the jump. The Gators would come out of the locker room, hit some threes, slam some dunks and coast to the finish, making those in Vegas happy with an easy cover of a 21-point line. It took a thunderous Patric Young dunk to finally get UF going though, as he fought through contact to slam the ball home bringing a heavily orange and blue clad Amway Center crowd to its feet. The Gators would go on a 9-0 run over the next 4:32 and by the 11:32 mark had the breathing room they needed and were able to hold off a tired bunch of Albany players until the finish.

In the second half the Gators locked down a bit more defensively — forcing seven of Albany’s 10 turnovers after the halftime break  including two Kasey Hill steals– and holding the Great Danes to only 32% shooting, a far cry from their first half clip.

UF was led in scoring by forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Casey Prather who each had 16 points. Prather is no stranger to being at the top of the boxscore but this is just the sixth time in the last 19 games Finney-Smith has scored in double figures after his shooting hit a considerable lull during a six game span in the midst of SEC play.

Young had his first double-double of the season and the 11th of his career with 10 points and rebounds, and he as well as the rest of Florida’s four seniors notched their 117th career victory, tying them for the most with Walter Hodge –the only senior in the class of 2009.

This wasn’t Florida’s best effort, not anywhere close and you didn’t have to be a basketball savant to see that. But when Florida struggles and games are tight don’t confuse Young’s emotions for something that they aren’t.

“Well, if I’m angry then I’m living in the past because those points are on the board already,” Young said. “There’s nothing I can do about that. Just try and get our team just to get a different mindset, try and lead us, try and be more vocal.

The Gators have a “one game” mentality. You hear it in every press conference, it’s a steely focus on just the moment at hand, and not a bigger picture.

“These guys are 33‑2 and haven’t lost a game going all the way back to December 2nd,” Donovan said. “They’ve done a really, really good job focusing like they need to in front of each challenge that’s been in front of them. This wasn’t one of our better moments in terms of that.”

Fine, they didn’t do a good job on focusing on their mentality against a 16 seed on tired legs. The question is: what happens if they deviate from that focus again, against a better team?

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Richard Johnson
Richard lives in Gainesville and prides himself in being a bonafide lifelong Alachua County Resident. He attends the University of Florida and is in his third year studying Telecommunications. He isn’t sure how he started loving football being the son of two immigrants that don’t care about the sport, but he has developed a borderline unhealthy obsession with it. In his free time, Richard watches other sports and is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers and Tampa Bay Rays. He doesn’t like chocolate, knows Moe’s is better than Chipotle and drinks way too many Arnold Palmers. He also took up golf in the summer of 2012. That pursuit isn’t going well. You can listen to him talk about sports during the Cheapseats radio show on ESPN 850-WRUF or online at WRUF.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RagjUF.