Gators escape Garden party with win

When Billy Donovan dissects the film of Florida’s 77-75 win over 15th-ranked Memphis (7-2) in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, he will probably shake his head and wonder how the Gators pulled it off.

The Gators turned the ball over 17 times, committed far too many fouls, missed the front end of two one-and-ones with less than a minute to go and gave the Tigers the last shot of the game. Somehow, none of that mattered except for making this trip to New York a bit more exciting than it needed to be.

It took a great escape in the final 10 seconds for 16th-ranked Florida (8-2) to leave the Garden with the win. With six seconds remaining, the Tigers’ Joe Jackson got into the paint for a floater from about six feet out but the ball caught the back iron of the rim. In the scramble for the ball, Dorian Finney-Smith punched it past midcourt and by the time Memphis’ Michael Dixon ran it down there wasn’t enough time for a decent shot.

That Florida was in position to win had everything to do with Casey Prather’s continuing emergence as the go-to guy. Prather, who led all scorers in the game with 22 points, scored the final eight for the Gators, two on drives to the hoop and the last four at the foul line.

Prather’s free throws offset misses by Dorian Finney-Smith with 40.8 seconds to go and Scottie Wilbekin with 17.1, both on the front end of a one-and-one and both with the Gators holding a very shaky lead. Prather knocked down two with 1:20 left that gave the Gators a 75-70 lead but after a free throw by Geron Johnson cut the margin to 75-71, Finney-Smith clanked, opening the door for Jackson to drive the lane and hit a nifty lefty shot that narrowed the lead to two.

Memphis wasted no time fouling Prather, who once again came up clutch, hitting his two foul shots with 27.2 seconds left for a 77-73 Florida lead. Memphis cut the margin back to two on free throws by Shaq Goodwin with 18 seconds to go. The Tigers fouled Wilbekin as soon as Florida got the ball in bounds and the strategy paid off when he bricked the foul shot. Memphis rebounded, got the ball across half court and called time out to set up the last shot.

Jackson took the ball at the top of the key, dribbled into the paint and missed a shot he had been making all night, which ended Memphis’ hopes of sending the game into overtime.

This was a game in which the Gators constantly had problems holding onto the basketball. Give Memphis credit for playing hard and playing tenacious defense, but the Gators turned the ball over nine times in each half and those turnovers allowed the Tigers to keep mounting comebacks just when Florida seemed to be ready to bust it wide open.

It happened in the first half. Florida dominated the first 12 minutes, taking control with an 8-2 run that included 3-pointers by Michael Frazier and Scottie Wilbekin for a 23-11 lead with 10:14 to go. Memphis hit its next six shots on a 17-6 run that allowed the Tigers to close to 29-28 when Joe Jackson hit a 3-pointer from the left wing with 5:54 remaining in the half.

A floater from the baseline by Wilbekin with 5:07 remaining and a layup in transition by Patric Young off a terrific lead pass by Kasey Hill with 4:23 to go gave the Gators some breathing room at 35-30. But Wilbekin left the game with his second foul with 4:02 left in the half, which was a setback for Florida especially on the defensive end. Without Wilbekin in the game, Memphis scored the next six points, taking the lead on a layup by Shaq Goodwin after a midcourt trap forced a Florida turnover.

Florida outscored Memphis 6-3 in the final 2:23, the last two on free throws by Dorian Finney-Smith with 2.4 seconds remaining for a 41-38 halftime lead.

In the second half, the Gators broke a 58-58 tie with a 6-0 run. When Hill hit the first 3-pointer of his Florida career with 6:03 to go, the Gators had an eight-point lead and seemed once again to have command of the game but Memphis scored the next five points to bring it back to a one-possession game at 69-66.

That’s when Prather took over. He got the final eight points and somehow the Gators survived.

GAME NOTES:  Prather had four rebounds and was 6-6 from the foul line … Also in double figures for the Gators were Finney-Smith with 14 and both Wilbekin and Michael Frazier with 11. Young finished with eight points and a game-high eight rebounds before he fouled out with 18 seconds to go … Florida went 7-16 from the 3-point line and 14-19 from the foul line … Memphis went 15-18 from the foul line and hit 27-54 fro the field … Florida outrebounded the Tigers, 37-26.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.