Gators striving for more effort at Auburn

Given the way that the second half went for the Gators in their loss to Alabama on Wednesday, it should come as no surprise that playing with a consistently high energy level was the biggest point of emphasis in practice in the two days that followed.

After winning their share of 50-50 balls, protecting the glass well and taking good care of the ball in the first half, they went into the locker room with a three-point lead.

Then, the second half began, and only one team showed up. Florida didn’t make a field goal for more than eight minutes and turned it over seven times during that stretch, several of which led to easy buckets at the other end. They played pretty good defense for the most part, but they allowed the Crimson Tide to grab way too many offensive rebounds.

For the game, the Gators gave up 20 offensive rebounds and committed 20 turnovers, which led to Alabama attempting 20 more shots than them. The end result was a loss in a game that felt very winnable against a top-15 team.

“Showed a lot to our guys [on Thursday],” coach Mike White said. “That stretch, off the top of my head, what was it, 15 ½ minutes maybe down to 12 ½? Something like that. That was the difference in the game. Made some mistakes in the first half, of course, and then, even early second half and late second half, there were some things we could’ve done better. That stretch of live-ball turnovers, shot selection, transition defense, lack of blocking out was the biggest part of the game. That cost us right there.”

Missed shots, turnovers and poorly executed block-outs are going to happen in basketball. That’s not what made White and his players feel disappointed in the aftermath. Instead, it was the lack of effort. Every player that has talked to the media since then has admitted that they took their foot off of the gas.

That’s happened several times to the Gators this season, both in victories and defeats, which makes it an alarming trend. You could maybe understand that happening once or twice against inferior nonconference opponents but certainly not against the defending league champions.

UF (9-4, 0-1 SEC) will get another chance to put together a complete 40 minutes when it takes on No. 9 Auburn on the road on Saturday night.

“We lost our edge in the second half,” guard Brandon McKissic said. “We did play with an edge in the first half. We played physical. They weren’t really dominating us the way they did in the second half on the boards. Turnovers affected us a bunch, too. We came back into practice, we took an emphasis to that – turnovers and physicality and making sure you get hits. We’re holding each other more accountable to those things.”

He added that playing with a more consistent level of effort in games starts in practice. They can’t just go through the motions in practice and then flip a switch during games. They’re going to play how they practice.

“I think it goes to our preparation,” he said. “There was a practice where we had a first half of practice that was really, really good, and it got towards the end, [and] we dropped off. So, it’s all about our habits. It goes back to practice with us. We’ve got to be able to put together two halves of practice before we can put together two halves of a game. So, that’s what we’ve been focusing on the past couple days – having full, complete practices where we’re completely locked in from minute one to the last minute of practice.”

They’re going to need to play harder than they have for an entire game all year just to have a chance to beat Auburn. The Tigers (13-1, 2-0) have an impressive win over a ranked LSU team on their resume, and their only loss came in double overtime to a Connecticut team that was ranked at the time.

They’re one of the favorites to win the SEC, which, given the strength of the league this year, also makes them a national title contender.

As usual under coach Bruce Pearl, Auburn plays an up-tempo style of game and launches a bunch of three balls. They rank 67th in’s adjusted tempo rankings, and they’re shooting more than 26 threes per game. Eastern Kentucky transfer Wendell Green (12.7 points, 4.6 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 36.1 3FG%) and Georgia transfer K.D. Johnson (12.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, 2.1 steals) lead a talented and deep backcourt.

However, what separates this team from most is its ability to play at a fast pace while still defending at an elite level and getting terrific production from its frontcourt. They rank sixth in KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings and are only giving up 64.3 points per game.

North Carolina transfer Walker Kessler is a load to handle in the post on both ends of the floor. He’s averaging 10.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 4.2 blocks per game while shooting 58.8 percent from the field. He ranks third in the country in blocked shots per game.

Normally, all of that would be enough to keep opposing coaches up late at night. But, in the Tigers’ case, they also have the potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft on their roster just for fun.

Five-star freshman Jabari Smith is 6-foot-10 but handles the ball extremely well and can shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor. His game is similar to that of NBA superstar Kevin Durant, albeit a far less polished version of Durant’s game, obviously.

Smith leads them in scoring at 15.7 points per game and is third on the team with 2.1 assists per game. He’s shooting nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc and exactly 84 percent from the charity stripe. The Gators don’t really have anybody who matches up well against him, nor do most other teams.

“He is a special talent,” White said. “I guess they say he’s 6-10, and he’s a two guard. He’s got a beautiful stroke. He’s efficient. He gets to his spots. He’s got an ability to raise up with a high release, to separate a little bit in the air, kind of twist a little bit, go right, go left. He’s just advanced. It seems like mentally he’s kind of a step ahead of where he should be at that age.

“Their front line is special, not only how talented and productive they are but how well they complement each other. They’re so different, those two guys. Just playing at a really high level. The guard additions bring speed and quickness and confidence and shot-making. They’ve got great length on the wing. They’ve had a great year to this point, really, for the most part, without a first team all-league guy who they’re trying to ease back into the mix in [Allen] Flanigan. They’ve got a chance to compete for a championship, in my opinion. They’re really good.”

Win or lose, White will be looking for a much more inspiring performance than what he saw in the second half against the other team that calls the Yellowhammer State home.

Ethan Hughes
Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and also wrote for for two years before joining Gator Country in 2021. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. You can follow him on Twitter @ethanhughes97.