Florida Gators basketball (8-6, 1-0 SEC) bounced back from a tough end to its non-conference slate to earn a closer-than-it-should-have-been 72-68 victory over the surging South Carolina Gamecocks (9-4, 0-1 SEC) on Wednesday evening at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina.
“The thing that was encouraging to me was I felt like we battled and fought as a group, collectively together as a team. For me, that was a step in the right direction for this group,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the victory.
OnlyGators.com breaks down Wednesday’s action with 10 quick-hitters:
It was over when: Leading by five with less than a minute to play, redshirt senior forward Jacob Kurtz hit two clutch free throws to push Florida ahead by seven. South Carolina responded with a corner three by Mindaugas Kacinas to cut its deficit to four with 34.1 remaining, and Kacinas hit another trey – following two free throws from redshirt junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith – to make it a three-point game. Junior guard Michael Frazier II then stepped up to hit two free throws to increase his team’s lead to five only to see freshman point guard Chris Chiozza foul the Gamecocks on a made layup, cutting UF’s advantage to two with 6.4 seconds left. Redshirt junior G Eli Carter was the last Florida player at the line, solidifying his team’s lead at four points with two made free throws; Kacinas missed another triple attempt at the buzzer. The Gators went 8-for-8 from the charity stripe over the final 43 seconds.
Significant stretch: Struggling early in the second half, Florida took advantage of a seven-minute field goal drought for South Carolina with a 13-2 run started by a game-tying triple from Frazier. The Gators used a trey by Finney-Smith and three free throws to take a 54-46 lead with less than nine minutes to play. UF held on to that advantage for most of the remainder of the game.
Prominent players: Finney-Smith was tremendous for Florida, hitting 7-of-12 shots and registering game-highs of 20 points and seven rebounds. An offensive burst from Finney-Smith kept the Gators afloat in the second half and helped them achieve an eight-point lead that the Gamecocks were able to chip away at but never squash. Finney-Smith also made two late free throws that maintained his team’s lead and allowed it to hang on for a victory. Frazier finished second on UF with 17 points on 4-of-7 shooting, hitting 3-of-5 threes and 6-of-7 attempts from the line.
First half focus: With the contest tied 6-6, Frazier came off the bench and broke things open, keying an 11-0 Gators run with eight-straight points including two triples (one moments after he entered the game). Florida’s offensive miscues and lacking defense put South Carolina right back in the contest, however, as the Gamecocks responded with an 11-0 stretch of their own. The contest was tied at 31 entering the final minute of the half, but solid ball rotation and a blown defensive assignment led to a huge triple by Duane Notice to put USC up 34-31 at the break.
Perfect plays: Early in the first half, sophomore center Chris Walker hustled down the court chasing a fastbreak layup, rising up at just the right time to smack it out of the opponent’s hand and off the backboard for a strong block. Later in the half, Frazier drove the lane late in the shot clock to find Finney-Smith waiting to finish with a strong dunk.
Standout stats: The Gators were foul- and turnover-crazy on Wednesday. Florida committed 14 fouls in the second half alone and had South Carolina in the bonus with 12 minutes to play (UF led 41-40); the Gamecocks went 14-for-14 from the line over that stretch, keeping the game closer than it should have been. UF also committed 17 turnovers in the contest with USC scoring 21 points off those miscues.
What it means: Florida picked up a victory in a must-win game against an opponent that had won seven-straight entering the contest. It was the Gators’ first road win of the season and starts UF off on the right foot at 1-0 in SEC play. Despite not having Horford, Florida was also better off the glass (23-16) than the fourth-best rebounding team in the country; the players proved they can exert their will on an opponent.
“Eighteen games is a long, long grind for nine weeks. It’s one game. Yes, it’s on the road, but we got to play again on Saturday,” Donovan said. “From our perspective, to start the league with a win is great but there’s another one coming on Saturday.”
Next up: The Gators return home to host Mississippi State on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Bulldogs are currently 7-6 on the season but beat one team UF lost to in its non-conference slate, Florida State.
Everything else: Florida and South Carolina traded 6-0 and 11-0 runs to open the game tied at 17-17 … sophomore point guard Kasey Hill missed the front end of one-and-ones on two occasions in the first half … the Gators made just one field goal over a span of 9:25 through halftime … Hill fouled out with 1:40 to play, finishing with nine points, one assist and four turnovers; Chiozza fouled out with seconds remaining … Hill and Chiozza combined for one assist while Carter and Kurtz each notched three dimes … South Carolina made 14-straight free throws to end the game; Florida hit eight-in-a-row with 43 seconds remaining … Walker only played 20 minutes despite Horford not being in attendance; he was worst on the team with a -11 during his court time … conversely, Kurtz rebounded from a tough outing against FSU to finish +13
Sidelined starters: Frazier was pulled from the starting lineup by Donovan; he did not come off the bench until there was 15:35 left in the first half.
“I’m really, really proud of him,” Donovan said of Frazier. “I felt like, in a lot of ways, [I] wasn’t getting through to him. He was not totally bought into what we needed to do as a team. I don’t mean that in a bad way, not like he was breaking off or doing his own thing. He just puts an enormous amount of pressure on himself that he believes that he’s got to be the guy to carry the team. … I thought for him, in the game, I give him a lot of credit from a maturity standpoint that he saw things the right way. We’ll see how it goes going forward, but he needed to sit. He needed to sit, and we needed to go with other guys. … We don’t need him to do anything else but be Michael Frazier. When he’s not being Michael Frazier, trying to be more than he needs to be, we suffer and pay for that.”
Redshirt senior center Jon Horford did not travel to South Carolina as he was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Freshman walk-on G Zach Hodskins was suspended along with Horford.
“I’ll evaluate [their status] when I get back. Certainly that’s an internal thing with our team. I thought their attitude and behavior was detrimental to our team,” Donovan explained. “There is a certain standard and culture you want to create inside your program, and when guys aren’t living up to that standard and culture, sometimes as a coach you get forced and put into a situation to make those kind of decisions. It was not a school decision – school had nothing to do with it – it was totally my decision as the head coach to suspend those guys. I don’t know when they’ll be back. I’m not saying they won’t be back [in practice] on Thursday but those guys had to do a few things while I was gone. I’m going to follow up to see where that’s at and then probably sit down and meet with them and then make some decisions from there.”