Pursuing greatness: Gators thump A&M

It got ugly early at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center Saturday afternoon. Third-ranked Florida (19-2, 8-0 SEC) was playing a swarming, smothering brand of defense that turned the Texas A&M Aggies into road kill long before the first half was over and it only got worse in the second half. As the deficit mounted, 20 then 25; 30 then 35, Billy Donovan wasn’t about to let up on his team.

“You get up by 30 points and there’s still 6-7 minutes to go: are you still chasing and pursuing, trying to be the best we can be because the scoreboard says it’s okay to relax and coast?” Billy Donovan asked in his post game press conference after the Gators demolished the Aggies, 69-36. “But you have a job to do and the scoreboard doesn’t give you the right to not do your job because of what the scoreboard reads.”

In those final minutes, Donovan cleared his bench as best he could – DeVon Walker was bothered by a hip pointer and he couldn’t play – but even with walk-ons Billy Donovan III, Jacob Kurtz and Lexx Edwards in the game with a pair of scholarship regulars, there was a level of responsibility that had to be maintained.

“Just because they’re coming in there and the student body is chanting ‘shoot! shoot! shoot!’ they still have a job to do and they’re not off limits just because they don’t play,” Donovan said of his walk-ons. “They have the same level of accountability.”

By holding everyone from the starters to the subs off the bench to the walk-ons to the same standard, the Gators are creating a high level of expectation among themselves. It really isn’t about what the other team is doing. It’s about what they do and that means everybody is accountable every single possession and that applies to practice as much as the games.

Michael Frazier and Patric Young talk about it often. They say it is about pursuing greatness.

“Not a lot of teams have an opportunity to be great but we feel like inside our team we have enough pieces to be great,” Frazier said after scoring a game-high 21 points to go with eight rebounds. “Coach D and all the coaches believe that. We believe that as a team. Whenever we don’t chase greatness, whenever we get outside the process we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

Donovan has long talked about staying in the moment, which means you never look beyond the next opponent in the days leading up to a game and once the game begins, forgetting the last play and focusing on the next one. It’s about playing as hard and as smart as possible.

It’s about making every possession count at both ends of the floor.

“We talk a lot about every possession playing to the best of our ability, five guys being connected,” Donovan said. “Let’s be as good as we can be.”

On the defensive end of the floor, the Gators were so good Saturday that they embarrassed the Aggies, who shot 25.9% from the floor (14-54) and 4-24 from the 3-point line. In the last four games, opponents have hit a collective 11-65 from the 3-point line.

You don’t lose a lot of games when opponents are hitting 18.4% from beyond the arc.

In winning their 13th straight game and 27th straight at home, the Gators weren’t exactly burning it up on the offensive end. They led 34-17 at the half even though they were only 1-12 from the 3-point line. But they got to the rack, got fouled a lot and hit their free throws.

And they ratcheted up the defense a couple of levels in the final 10 minutes.

The Gators held a 14-12 lead with 10:09 to go in the first half. Over the next 10 minutes, the Aggies went 2-10 from the floor and 1-3 from the foul line. The Gators, meanwhile, put 20 on the scoreboard but Donovan knew that even at 34-17 it shouldn’t have been that close.

“We’re 1-12 in the first half from behind the 3-point line and we had great looks,” Donovan said. “Scottie Wilbekin was 0-4 or 0-5; Frazier 0-3 or 0-4 in the first half. We had good looks. We just couldn’t make a shot. Doe-Doe (Dorian Finney-Smith) had a lot of good looks. From an offensive standpoint I think both teams struggled to even make good looks and we had them.”

Wilbekin and Frazier found the range early in the seond half, scoring Florida’s first 12 points as the Gators pushed the lead to 26 (46-20) in the first five minutes. Florida led by 30, 53-23, on a Frazier 3-ball with 12:26 to go and the largest margin was 38 when Finney-Smith hit the free throw to finish off a 3-point play with 4:48 left that made the score 64-26.

It wasn’t until Fabyon Harris knocked down a 3-pointer with 2:07 to go in the game that the Aggies were able to crack the 30-point barrier.

“It would have been cool if we could have held them under 30 points but a win is a win,” said Young, who finished the game with nine points and a career-high 14 rebounds to lead a 57-27 Florida advantage on the backboards. Will Yeguete also reached double figures rebounding with 10 and Finney-Smith, who scored 11 points, missed a double-double by one rebound.

Donovan used those last five minutes to rest a banged up team that played its second game in three days. Beside DeVon Walker, who could have played in an emergency, Wilbekin banged knees with an Aggie in the second half, Casey Prather was playing on a gimpy ankle and Finney-Smith had to walk off a couple of tweaked ankles.

“Our team is a little banged up with some injuries, nothing major, but I really thought a by-product of our shooting was we looked fatigued in some ways today, just physically,” Donovan said.

The Gators might be banged up and they might seem a bit fatigued, but they still had more than enough to put down the Aggies, who lost their fifth straight SEC game after starting out in league play at 3-0.

The score made it seem like a very impressive win, but Frazier admitted that the Gators still have a long way to go as they pursue greatness.

“We just got to stay our nose to the process and understand that we can get better,” Frazier said. “We have to play desperate, play desperate in practice and chase greatness. When you’re chasing greatness, that’s when you have a chance to reach your potential.

GAME NOTES: The 36 points was the lowest output for a Texas A&M team since 1955 when they scored only 34 against Oklahoma City … The 36 points allowed tied for the fewest by a Donovan team in SEC play (South Carolina scored only 36 last year) … Florida has won 13 straight SEC games, which ties the school record … This was Donovan’s 200th SEC win … Florida is 19-2 for the third time in school history, all three times under Donovan … Prather played limited minutes due to his gimpy ankle and only scored seven points, the first time this season he has been out of double figures … The Gators shot 41.1% from the field (23-56) and 20% (5-25) from the 3-point line.

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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.