Gators slug out win over Bama

On a 1-10 scale with 10 being an unforgettable tirade like the one Billy Donovan had at halftime of the Jacksonville University game when he was a freshman, Patric Young rates the halftime speech of Saturday’s Alabama game “somewhere around a 4 or a 5.”

Donovan was anything but happy with the way his 3rd-ranked Florida Gators (21-2, 10-0 SEC) played at either end of the court. Tied at 36-36 at the intermission, Young braced himself for a dressing down like the one the Gators got this past Tuesday when they trailed Missouri, 28-25 at the half.

“I was expecting the worst but we didn’t get it,” Young said after the Gators played well enough in the second half to carve out a 78-69 win over Alabama (9-14, 3-7 SEC) before a crowd of 12,520 at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

Young said that Donovan described Florida’s first half offense “as a train wreck.” That was a compliment compared to the defense, which Donovan said was “bad the whole game.”

Yet somehow, the Gators put it all together and remained the only Southeastern Conference team with an unblemished league record (10-0) as they extended their overall winning streak to 15 games and their O’Connell Center home winning streak to 29 while improving to the second best start (21-2) in school history. It wasn’t pretty although there were stretches in which the Gators played like you would expect a team that is being mentioned as a possible #1 seed in next month’s NCAA Tournament. The Gators ended the half on one of those runs when they outscored Alabama 15-8 to get the game back to even at 36-36 and they had a 14-5 run to start the second half that got them the lead for good.

There were also stretches like the one in which they didn’t score a point from the 13:01 mark until Scottie Wilbekin hit a free throw with 6:40 to go in the half to end the drought. During that time Alabama went from an 18-12 deficit to a 22-19 lead that stretched out to 28-21 on back-to-back 3-pointers by Rodney Cooper and Trevor Releford.

During a halftime that would rate as reasonably calm by Young’s standards, Donovan made adjustments. On offense, the Gators got better spacing and quit trying to overpass the ball on the interior. The result was a 5-12 effort from the 3-point line after a 1-5 first half effort.

Scottie Wilbekin got Florida’s offense cranked to start the second half when he knocked down a 3-pointer that was followed by a conventional 3-point play by Young with 17:58 to go that gave the Gators the lead for good at 42-41. A fast break layup by Casey Prather, a 3-ball by Michael Frazier and another 3-pointer by Scottie Wilbekin forged the Gators to a 50-42 lead with 14:57 left in the game.

Florida would expand the lead to as many as 15 on a layup after a steal by Frazier that made the score 64-49 with 8:48 left, but Alabama chipped away and got to within seven on a couple of occasions. Still, the Gators were never threatened after that 14-5 run that started the second half.

Defensively, the Gators did a far better job in the press and in closing out on Alabama’s 3-point shooters in the second half. In the first half, the Crimson Tide found holes in Florida’s zone to knock down five of their seven (71.4%) 3-pointers with Releford going 3-5 as part of a 16-point effort in the first 20 minutes. In the second half, the Gators practically eliminated the 3-point line.

“In the first half they were 5-7 from the 3-point line, so we really made a huge emphasis coming out of the half that we were going to really get up on 3-point shooters,” Donovan said. “We shortened up our pick and roll coverage where our bigs were getting back to their man a little quicker because we put ourselves in some vulnerable situations because we gave Releford so much attention.

Whereas Alabama got just about any shot it wanted in the first half, the Crimson Tide had difficulty squeezing off shots – they managed only 17 – in the second half. The only thing that kept Florida from completely blowing the lid off the game was the foul line. Alabama went 16-19 in a half that saw several testy exchanges between Donovan and each member of the zebra crew of Mike Nance, Mike Thibodeaux and Marc Ellard.

It left Donovan happy the Gators left the building with a win, but little else.

“I’m happy we won,” Donovan said. “I think as a coach you’re always looking for areas to improve. We made some adjustments at the half, which I think helped us a little bit. We eliminated the 3-point line; we just fouled too much.”

He didn’t sound disgusted but there wasn’t a lot of joy in his voice, either.

What Donovan and the Gators will try to do is to learn what they can from the Alabama game and put it behind them quickly. Florida enters the toughest stretch of the Southeastern Conference portion of their schedule with four of their next five games on the road including both games next week. The Gators will travel to Knoxville to face Tennessee Tuesday and then it will be to Lexington next Saturday for a much-anticipated matchup with 18th-ranked Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC), which took out Mississippi State on the road Saturday.

Donovan noted that the Florida schedule only gets tougher in the next four weeks as the regular season grinds to a close.

“In reality if you look at the league standings right now, most of our road games have been against the bottom half of this league,” Donovan said. “Most of our schedule has been against the bottom half of our league. Now, we did play Tennessee here at home; we did play Missouri here at home but most of our games have been against the bottom half of our league. Now, with four of our next five are on the road – going to Tennessee on Tuesday and only having one home game in the next two weeks – and five of our next eight on the road, it all is going to even out.

“So I’m not overly joyous and great because we’re 10-0. I think it will all shake out at the end after 18 games and we’re past the halfway point right now.”

There is a lot more basketball to be played, but the Gators are more than halfway home and they do have a two-game lead over the rest of the SEC heading into their last eight. They played a demanding pre-conference schedule and have proven they can win with any number of lineups because of injuries and suspensions.

And Donovan is the first one to admit that not every team plays great every game. Saturday, was nothing close to the best the Gators have played this season but it was a win.

“Everybody has some bad games,” Donovan admitted.

This was one of them, but bad games that end with a win are far more tolerable than bad games that end with a loss.

Young put it in perspective.

“It’s pretty cool that we’re on the right track but we have to stay humble as a team and continue to take it one game at a time,” he said. “Our record is 21-2 but that’s predicated on the past. We can’t do anything to affect that right now. We have to go into each game as if it’s a new opportunity and focus on that game. So we’re going to focus on Tennessee.”

GAME NOTES: All five of Florida’s starters scored in double figures. Wilbekin led the way with 16 points, while Prather scored 15, Frazier 14, Will Yeguete 12 and Young 11. Prather was also the leading rebounder with six while Dorian Finney-Smith had five assists … The Gators had 22 assists on their 31 made baskets … Florida finished the game shooting 62% overall (31-50) but only 35.3% (6-17) from the 3-point line … Chris Walker scored four points and pulled down one rebound in four minutes of playing time … Releford led Alabama with 25.

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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.