Great escape! Gators slip past FSU, 67-66

From his vantage point, Dorian Finney-Smith thought the 13th-ranked Florida Gators (6-1) were goners as he watched Ian Miller’s halfcourt shot sail toward the rim as time expired Friday night.

“That last shot scared me; it hurt my heart,” Finney Smith said. “When I was watching it looked like it was going in.”

The difference between a miracle finish for the Florida State Seminoles was and no more than a half inch. A half inch shorter and Miller’s shot is a three-pointer that would have capped a brilliant come-from-behind effort that saw the Seminoles erase an eight-point deficit in the final three minutes.

The difference for the Gators (6-1) was the second of two free throws by Finney-Smith with 1.3 seconds to go that gave Florida the final 67-66 margin. Finney-Smith was at the line after getting fouled while going up with an offensive rebound after Scottie Wilbekin missed a pull-up shot in the lane with three seconds to go. Finney Smith was actually one of the options Billy Donovan designed to take the last shot, but when Wilbekin drove the lane and pulled up, it gave Finney-Smith a clear path to the ball. He grabbed it, went up and was fouled by Miller.

“He (Wilbekin) didn’t make the right read on the play,” Donovan said. “I wish he had driven all the way to the rim and provided some help. What was open was Dorian at the top of the key and instead he took a pull-up shot. Now the one thing that did happen was with Dorian at the top of the key it gave him a free run in.”

Finney Smith’s first shot clanged long off the iron, but after an encouraging word from Patric Young, his second free throw was all net.

“Patric was like, ‘Be great on the second one,’” Finney-Smith said. “Patric said ‘It’s okay, you got that one over with, just make this one.’”

Finney-Smith got to be a hero because, after missing the first free throw after trying to stick back an offensive rebound, he got a second chance.

There was no second chance for Miller, who caught an inbounds pass, dribbled once and then faded out of bounds as he launched that last shot. Buzzer beaters from half court always fall into the miracle finish category, but Florida coach Billy Donovan was willing to live with that

.What he wasn’t willing to live with was a catch and shoot near the top of the key, a foul on a shooter or a catch deep down the court with a screen seal for a layup to end the game.

“Our guys played it just like we told them we wanted to,” Donovan said. “We wanted them to inbound the basketball in front of half court and that’s what we did. His (Miller’s) back was to the basket. He took one dribble and threw up a desperation shot that almost went in. If it goes in you’ve got to live with it. The worst thing you want to do in that situation is foul or throw the ball all the way into the lane, get sealed off and give up a layup.”

That it was even close at the end had everything to do with free throws. Florida State was on radar lock in the final four minutes of the game, knocking down 10-10 from the line in the final 3:58. Florida, on the other hand, was only 3-8 in the final three minutes and only 15-24 from the game.

It was only fitting that Miller got the last shot. He scored seven of FSU’s final nine points, hitting a pair of free throws with 2:07 that cut Florida’s lead to 63-59; a three-pointer from the right side of the key with 1:09 to go that made it a one-piint (65-64) game and then a pair of free throws to tie the score at 66-66 with 28.3 seconds to go.

While Miller and the Seminoles were hitting their shots, particularly their free throws, Florida was almost in meltdown.

Following a three-pointer by Michael Frazier with 3:00 left that gave the Gators a 63-55 lead, the Gators had their chances to put the Seminoles away. Following the Frazier three-ball, the Gators got a stop on the defensive end but when Frazier grabbed the rebound, he fumbled the ball away and in the ensuing scramble, Patric Young got called for a foul. That sent Aaron Thomas to the line for two free throws, which he made with 2:45 to go.

The Gators had a chance to get those two points back with 2:18 to go but Scottie Wilbekin bricked the free throws. Down at the other end, Miller got fouled by Casey Prather and knocked in the foul shots to cut the lead to four with 2:07 to go.

On Florida’s possession, Wilbekin tried a dump down pass to Will Yegeute but Yeguete never saw the ball coming and it bounced harmlessly out of bounds. FSU came

“Scottie gets fouled and misses both free throws,” Donovan said. “Then they come down the floor and we don’t rebound and come up with a loose basketball. It gets bobbled around, they get it and we foul them … We come back down the floor and Scottie throws a pass to Will Yeguete that he can’t even see that’s behind him. Those plays can’t happen.”

Plays like that negated the good work that was done over a six-minute stretch in the second half that saw the Gators build up a nine-point lead with 6:17 to go in the game on a three-pointer by Frazier, who went 5-8 from beyond the arc in the game and finished with 17 points.

During that 14-7 run that got the Gators a 56-47 lead, the Gators came up with four three-point plays, two the old-fashioned way and two by Frazier, who was 3-4 from the three-point line in the second half. Florida got back-to-back three-point plays from Jacob Kurtz and Yeguete before Frazier connected from long distance with 7:51 to go to make it a 51-45 game. Frazier hit again at the 6:17 mark and added one more with 3:00 to go.

Getting Frazier free was part of Donovan’s design to give the Gators a bit of breathing room.

“I was running some offense for him,” Donovan said. “We were trying to get him some screening action.”

Frazier’s three-pointers were critical because they helped make up for a five-point deficit at the foul line. FSU went 20-23 while the Gators were 15-24. Bu.t on three-point shots, the Gators were 6-16 while defensively holding FSU to 2-10

“They made more free throws but where we probably got some help was the three-point line,” Donovan said. “We did a good job defending the three.”

Particularly the last shot of the game.

GAME NOTES: Florida, which led at the half, 31-28, was led in scoring by Casey Prather, who hit 6-10 from the field and 7-9 from the foul line for 19 points … Kurtz scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds off the bench … Although they were each only 2-12 from the field, both Wilbekin and Finney-Smith did other things to help the Gators. Wilbekin had seven points, eight assists and five steals while Finney-Smith grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds … Florida State was led in scoring by 7-3 sophomore Boris Bojanosky with 14 and Miller with 13 … The Gators travel to UConn Monday night.

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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.