Gators overcome lethargic start

The Florida Gators closed out the non-conference portion of their schedule Saturday with a 67-58 win over a good Richmond team from the Atlantic 10 Conference before a crowd of 12,012 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. On paper it looks like a good win and it was from the standpoint of keeping the momentum going heading into Wednesday’s first game of the Southeastern Conference schedule with South Carolina. From a standpoint of energy, focus and playing the way Billy Donovan wants the Gators to play, however, it was one of those games where there were far too many stretches when the Gators were basically running up and down the floor and not getting much accomplished.

Donovan said it all started in the first half. Off to a 12-5 start in the first 8:20 of the game, the Gators lost all continuity in their offense and the rest of the half turned into a boring grind that featured far too many missed shots around the basket.

“We’re playing pretty well, we’re up seven, we’re shooting 52.7% from the field they’re shooting in the mid-30s, then all of a sudden our offense and what we were doing just stopped,” Donovan said after the 12th-ranked Gators improved to 11-2 for the season. “We became a one-on-one team. We started driving the ball with no purpose, no awareness of what was going on.”

The Gators scored only 13 points in the final 11:40 of the first half, taking a 25-23 lead into the locker, but the box score provided glaring evidence of why the game was that close. From a 6-11 start from the field, the Gators were 4-13 the rest of the half and a dismal 1-9 from the 3-point line.

Donovan claimed there was zero in the way of senior leadership, but he pointed the finger at Scottie Wilbekin. As a senior point guard, Donovan puts a lot on Wilbekin’s plate. When his point guard is 1-9 from the field, 0-4 from the 3-point line and has only one assist to show for the first 20 minutes in a game in which the entire offense has gone stagnant, the first person Donovan is going to light up in the locker room is the guy whose job it is to get everybody else involved.

“Scottie – because of his competitiveness – his competitiveness overwhelmed him in the game,” Donovan said. “The more shots he kept missing around the basket, the more determined he got to keep driving and the more the basketball didn’t go in and the more frustrated he got and the more we stood around and watched him play by himself.”

That’s a kind way to describe the first half debacle.

The ball moved better once the Gators got started in the second half, but the energy level still wasn’t there. When Richmond scored six straight points to take a 35-31 lead with 12:58 to go in the game, it appeared the Gators were in for an embarrassing end to their home court winning streak.

That’s when Michael Frazier began to find his way and the Gators started finding their primary outside shooter. He connected on a 3-pointer – his first of the afternoon – with 13:01 to go off a nice pass from the low blocks from Patric Young, who found Frazier open on the wing. After the Gators got a stop on the defensive end, they ran the floor and Frazier got another three on a trailer on a kickback pass from Kasey Hill, who penetrated past the foul line and then flipped it back to Frazier, whose 3-ball gave Florida a 37-35 lead.

Those two 3-pointers were like a caffeine IV for the Gators, who began to emerge from their lethargic state. They still had some battles ahead but at least they had a pulse.

“Up to that point we were just grinding and grinding away,” Frazier said. “Then I was able to get open, my teammates found me and that gave us some energy.”

It was another 3-pointer by Frazier that got the Gators started on a 19-5 run that gave them the distance they needed from the pesky Spiders. This one came off a nice pass from Casey Prather with 7:50 left in the game and it cut Richmond’s lead to 46-45, but it wasn’t until Patric Young hit a baby hook as he swept across the lane from the left block to the right that the momentum really changed in Florida’s favor. Fouled on the play, Young completed the 3-point play to give the Gators the lead for good at 52-50 with 4:35 to go in the game.

Florida scored the next nine points to take a 61-50 lead with 1:28 to go. At that point, Richmond’s strategy changed into the hack-a-Gator mode. The Spiders were willing to exchange fouls for the possibility that this might be another one of those nights when the Gators couldn’t find the ocean if they were standing on the pier.

In a closer game, it might have worked. Florida went 4-10 from the foul line in the final 1:05, 2-8 in the final 57 seconds but it was still enough as the Gators held on for a final 67-58 margin.

“We had a chance to close it out much better than we did,” Donovan said. “Clearly defensively and from the free throw line we could have closed out a lot better.”

That the Gators can’t seem to find the range from the foul line in the final minute of a game is obvious. What might not be obvious to the casual observer but doesn’t escape Donovan’s watchful eye is the fact that the Gators don’t seem to have the right kind of court awareness.

“We don’t see well enough right now,” Donovan said. “We would be great on a horse track. We’ve got these blinders on. They can’t see left to right they can only see what’s in front of them.”

He was referring to open shooters. He sees plenty of them. Unfortunately, his team doesn’t.

“Will Yegeuete is driving acorss the lane and Scottie Wilbekin is standing at the top of the key and there is nobody near him,” Donovan pointed out, adding that during those moments when Frazier got it going, there was another occasion when his best shooter was wide open but nobody saw him and got him the ball.

“There are guys standing wide open and they do not see them,” Donovan said. “I don’t think it’s a malicious thing like I’m not going to pass the ball to him, but what are you looking at? Have an awareness of where he’s at!”

Donovan was quick to point out that this is not a selfish team. Not at all. It’s just a team that needs to develop a better awareness of who’s open and who’s not.

It hasn’t been the kind of problem that has cost Florida wins so far, but with the conference schedule about to kick in, it’s one that needs to be resolved in the very near future.

GAME NOTES: Frazier was one of four Gators in double figures, leading the team in scoring with 18 points. Young scored 15 to go with six rebounds while Prather finished with 12 and Wilbekin with 10. It was the 13th consecutive game in double figures for Prather … Dorian Finney-Smith had a season-high 13 rebounds to go with five points … Florida outrebounded the Spiders 44-22 … For the game, the Gators were 26-56 from the field (46.4%) and 5-19 from the 3-point line (26.3%) … Richmond was 24-55 from the field (43.6%) and 9-25 from the 3-point line (36%) … The Gators have now won 23 consecutive games 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.