Gators grind down Fresno with defense

SUNRISE – Forget that first half offense. Ugly wouldn’t even come close to describing it, but it came around in the second half after Billy Donovan did some tweaking at the half. What didn’t need tweaking was the defense, which turned a volume shooting 3-ball team like Fresno State into a grind it out, half court team, and that’s something the Bulldogs weren’t exactly comfortable doing.

Coming into Saturday’s Orange Bowl Classic, Fresno State was launching 24-25 3-point shots per game. At the half, the Bulldogs only managed five attempts. They got off another 12 in the second half, but most of them were bad shots because for the first time all year the Gators guarded the perimeter with their heels outside the 3-point line. That forced the Bulldogs beyond their comfort range and the result was a 4-17 effort, one of which was a near halfcourt make at the end of the game when it was all over.

“We knew coming into this game that was the number one most important thing because they take about 25 3-point attempts a game,” Patric Young said after the 16th-ranked Gators (9-2) knocked off Fresno State, 66-49, at the BB&T Center. “Us being able to make them take bad shots was great for our team.”

It was great because the Gators had no offensive game to speak of the first 20 minutes. Florida held a 23-19 lead at the break thanks to two things – Casey Prather was able to get to the rim consistently and score (he was 5-7 shooting the ball; the rest of the team was 4-24 including 1-13 from the 3-point line) and defense that smothered the Bulldogs on the perimeter where three of their five 3-balls were forced.

Florida’s miserable first half shooting wasn’t due to a lack of open shots. The shots were there but the ball wouldn’t drop. In the locker room at the half, Florida coach Billy Donovan was far less concerned with the missed 3-pointers than he was the misses at or near the rim.

“The stats were mind-boggling with the shots we missed,” Donovan said. “Never mind the 3-point shots, the shots around the basket.”

Some of the poor shooting could be attributed to recognizing what the Bulldogs were doing. They showed a lot of 3-2 zone that morphed into a triangle-and-two. They also showed zone when the Gators crossed midcourt and then switched to man-to-man once the first pass was made.

It was confusing enough that the Gators suffered through their worst offensive half of the season. Fortunately, the defense was improved, perhaps the best bell-to-bell effort of the season.

“They did some different things defensively against us that they hadn’t shown such as a triangle-and-two and I thought our guys had to adjust with that as the game went on,” Donovan said. “That was one of those games when you walk in at halftime and if you don’t do a good job of guarding the 3-point line you’re down by eight or 10 points. Even though we played very poorly, I was happy that we were ahead by four.”

The Gators shot 29% overall from the field in the first half (9-31), but in the second half they were 15-26 (57.7%). Instead of volume shooting from the outside, the Gators were much more selective. The first look was always inside and when the defense collapsed, Young, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith  found the shooters. Florida went 4-5 from the 3-point line.

“In the second half we took so many less 3-point shots and we played at the rim,” Donovan said.

The offense was quick to get in synch in the second half. Prather slashed to the rim for an easy two 17 seconds into the half and that was followed up by a 3-ball from the left wing by Michael Frazier on an assist from Young, who took an entry pass from Scottie Wilbekin, then kicked the ball out when three defenders collapsed around him on the low block.

Wilbekin hit a 3-pointer to give the Gators their first double figures lead (33-21) at the 15:48 mark and following a dunk by Finney-Smith on a dump down from the top of the key by Kasey Hill, Hill followed with his second 3-ball of the game on another inside-out play where the ball went from Wilbekin to Young and then back to the right wing where Hill had his feet set for a 38-23 lead.

Those three 3-pointers had the effect of a can opener, slicing open the Fresno defense and opening things up for an inside game the Bulldogs weren’t capable of stopping. Of Florida’s final 28 points, 10 came at or near the rim and eight came on free throws from getting in the paint and forcing the inside action.

The Gators got the lead to 20 points (55-35) on a Yeguete stick back with 5:45 to go and expanded it to 25 (66-41) on a Finney-Smith jumper from inside the 3-point line.

Young and Yeguete, who combined for five first half points, were good for 12 in the second half and they cleaned up on the boards. Of Florida’s 47 rebounds, 20 came on the offensive end and resulted in 20-second chance points.

Florida owned a 47-24 advantage for the game with Yeguete snagging 10 and Young adding another nine.

Fresno, meanwhile, couldn’t handle Florida’s perimeter defense.

Marvelle Harris, who came into the game averaging 17.9 per game, managed 10 and was 0-4 from the 3-point line. Cezar Guerrero exceeded his 14.4 average (he scored 17), but was 5-14 from the field and only 3-8 from the 3-point line. Tyler Johnson came into the game averaging 14.0 but scored only four and was 2-7 from the field.

That the Bulldogs struggled on the perimeter had everything to do with Florida’s emphasis in practice after giving up 24-56 3-point shooting (46%) in the last three games.

“I think as a coach when you’re putting an emphasis on things in practice like we have the last couple of days it’s good to see the things that we’ve focused on get fulfilled in the game,” Donovan said.

The defense was the critical element, again the best overall effort from start to finish for the Gators this season. It is the one element that has to remain in a constant state of improvement if the Gators are to play at a championship level this season.

“We know what we have to do to win,” Yeguete said. “Defense is going to win championships and games. Especially when the offense isn’t going well, we can just focus on the defense and we can get fast break points and put backs and things like that. Offensively in the first half wasn’t very good, but we kept on guarding and we got open shots, some free layups and Pat had a few post touches and that seemed to help us.

GAME NOTES: Young didn’t start the game because he didn’t practice Friday while getting treatment for sore, aching knees … Kasey Hill was 2-2 on his 3-point attempts. He’s hit his last three long balls after starting the season 0-8 … Prather was the game’s MVP, finishing with 16 points, five rebounds and two assists. He has scored double figures in every game this season … Fresno State finished the game 16-50 from the field (32%) … Florida’s next game is December 29 when they play host to Savannah State at the O-Dome.

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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.