Although he would have preferred a different result, Billy Donovan saw some things he liked Tuesday night when Florida’s eighth-ranked and short-handed Gators dropped a 59-53 decision to 20th-ranked Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison, a building where the Badgers win 90% of the time.
On the verge of being blown out in the second half when Wisconsin stretched its lead from three at the half to 11 points (47-36), the Gators found the leadership that Donovan has been looking for as they came back with three points with 41.8 seconds to go in the game.
“I was really proud of Patric (Young) and Casey Prather and Will Yeguete,” Donovan said. “I thought those guys kept us together when we were starting to lose it a little bit.”
Behind the three seniors and with an offensive lift from Michael Frazier and hustle plays by walk-on Jacob Kurtz, the Gators gave themselves a chance to win the game even though they were playing without three suspended players and had four on the bench less than 100%.
That meant some odd lineups at the end of the first half when freshman point guard Kasey Hill spent the last five-plus minutes on the bench with foul trouble and again at the end of the game when Hill fouled out with 3:25 to go. When Hill was out of the game, the Gators went point guard by committee. Frazier and DeVon Walker played the point in the final 3:25 and in the last six minutes of the first half, Donovan alternated Frazier, Walker and Eli Carter.
In the final minutes of the game when the Gators closed to 56-53 with 41.8 seconds to go, Florida was going with a lineup of Young, Yeguete, Prather, Kurtz and Frazier. That’s not an ideal lineup but it worked well enough that the Gators kept it close enough that some made free throws could have changed the outcome.
“We gave ourselves a chance to win,” Donovan said, adding later, “although I’m disappointed in the loss there are some good things we can take out of it.”
Florida actually led by 12 points early in this game. The Gators jumped to a 7-2 lead and expanded that to 16-4 with 12:56 remaining when Frazier hit the third of three straight three-pointers.
Wisconsin went 2-9 from the field to start the game but went 10-19 the rest of the half, starting with a pair of three-pointers from Sam Dekker. A stickback from Nigel Hayes cut Florida’s lead to 22-16 but Prather answered with a driving layup with 7:55 to go in the half to make it an eight-point game at 24-16. Wisconsin scored the next 13 points as the Gators went 0-8 from the field the rest of the way. It wasn’t until Will Yeguete hit two free throws with 12.6 seconds left that the Gators got on the scoreboard again to go into the half trailing, 29-26.
The cold spell continued for the Gators in the first eight minutes of the second half as the Badgers mounted a 47-36 lead with 12:05 remaining game on a Duje Dukan three-pointer. With the game ready to get out of hand, the Gators tightened up the defense and held Wisconsin scoreless for the next four minutes.
A tip-in by Prather and a three-pointer by Frazier with 9:44 to go got the Gators back to respectability at 47-41. Florida had three chances to cut further in to the Wisconsin lead but Hill missed a layup, a Patric Young tip attempt rimmed out and Prather turned the ball over before Jackson was able stop the Wisconsin slide with a jumper from the right side of the key with 8:00 left to stretch the lead back out to 49-41.
Frazier’s fifth three-ball of the game cut the lead to 49-44 and from there it became a dogfight. A pair of free throws by Young cut Wisconsin’s lead to 51-48 with 5:01 left but the Badgers answered with a three-pointer from 7-0 center Frank Kaminsky to stretch the lead back to six at 54-48.
The Gators had more chances to cut into the lead but they went 3-6 from the foul line in the final 3:45. Young went 1-2 from the line with 42 seconds left, leaving the Gators three points short (56-53). The Gators elected to play defense and get a stop, a strategy that almost worked but for a Jackson jumper with 9.8 seconds remaining that sealed the win.
“When you’re on the road like this with new faces and some guys in different roles and some injuries, sometimes you dig yourself too much of a hole in the first half and you can’t dig your way out of it,” Donovan said.
GAME NOTES: Frazier led the Gators with 20 points while Prather scored 14 … Frazier was 5-7 from the three-point line but the rest of the team was 0-7 … Hill scored only points and had four assists while going 2-10 from the field. “That’s part of the game for a freshman,” Donovan said, calling this a learning experience for Hill. “You have to figure those things out … Kurtz scored one point and grabbed five rebounds while defending everyone from the 7-0 Kaminsky to Wisconsin point guard Ben Brust … The Gators return home Saturday to face Arkansas-Little Rock at 4:30 p.m. at the O-Dome.