No. 3 Florida Gators basketball (21-2, 10-0 SEC) found an offensive surge in the second half on Saturday afternoon to take down the Alabama Crimson Tide (9-14, 3-7 SEC) at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, FL. Following the Gators’ 78-69 victory, head coach Billy Donovan met with the media to discuss the contest and his team’s difficult upcoming schedule.
GETTING HIS GROOVE BACK
Senior forward Casey Prather has been dealing with an injured ankle for a couple of weeks, but it seemed to truly start bothering him over the last two games – the first in which he failed to score double-digit points this season. In fact, Prather has looked nothing like the player that has been Florida’s leading scorer all season, combining for just 12 points and four rebounds in those two contests.
Saturday was a much-needed step in the right direction for the Gators’ most improved player, who efficiently scored 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting, grabbed six boards and dished three assists. According to Donovan, Prather was a simple decision away from not even stepping foot on the court.
“[Saturday] morning at about 8:30, I didn’t know if we were going to play him,” he explained. “I really left it up to him. He didn’t feel 100 percent. We had talked about just resting him, maybe just giving him time and see what would happen for our next game. He made the decision that he wanted to play and try it.”
Donovan checked on Prather early in the game, but he confirmed to his coach that he felt well enough to continue playing. Considering Prather’s game is almost entirely based on his athleticism, mobility issues hurt this confidence as of late. Donovan was pleased to see that no longer be the case over the weekend.
“It was one of those things where it becomes a mental issue for him. It becomes where he thinks about it. … It gets more into the fact that he doesn’t feel, confidence-wise, that he’s capable of doing the things he knows he needs to do,” Donovan explained. “I think when he knows he can do things physically, it just adds to his confidence. … When he can’t move like he wants to move, I think he knows he’s putting our team in jeopardy, and I think that eats him alive and kills him.”
One of the best defensive teams in the nation this season, Florida ranks sixth in points allowed per game (57.4) and 13th in field goal percentage defense (.384). Alabama on Saturday made those statistics meaningless, scoring 69 points and shooting .550 from the floor as UF was late reacting to its opponent, struggled when UA drove to the hoop and fouled too often, sending the visitors to the line for 22 free throws.
“I thought we were bad the whole game, to be honest with you,” Donovan said. “[Defense is] not a thing that just happens. It’s an everyday grind to be really good, and we were not where we needed to be. Thank God we had some offense tonight to help us. … I thought they attacked us very well.”
Individually, the Crimson Tide’s Trevor Releford gave Gators senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin fits, scoring a game high 25 points on 7-of-10 shooting and hitting 4-of-6 three-point attempts. Wilbekin clamped down on Releford a bit in the second half, but he agreed with Donovan that UF’s defense was a major issue all game.
“We got up to an early lead and then we got a little lackadaisical. We just didn’t play hard. We let off the gas a little bit,” he said.
21-2 (10-0 SEC) … SO WHAT?
Never one to allow his team to get a big head, Donovan made it quite clear after Saturday’s game that he does not believe Florida has accomplished anything just yet.
“We’re 21-2. That’s just a record of what has happened in the past. That’s all that is,” he explained. “My thing to them is: What have we learned from the past and how can we utilize the past to help us get better? … I do try to talk to our guys a lot about that stuff. What matters and what doesn’t matter and what we have to do in terms of getting better and improving.”
Donovan also correctly pointed out that the Gators opened league play with a relatively easy schedule all things considering. Things are about to get much more difficult for Florida, which will play the majority of its final eight games on the road including a very difficult stretch over the next two weeks.
“Most of our games have been against the bottom half of the league. And now, with four of the next five on the road, going to Tennessee on Tuesday, and only having one game in the next two weeks, and then five of your last eight are on the road, it’s all going to even out,” he noted.
UF plays at Tennessee (15-8, 6-4 SEC) on Tuesday, where it has not won since Jan. 11, 2011, before travelling to face No. 18 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC) on Saturday in Lexington, KY, where it has not won since Feb. 10, 2007.
Florida will get a breather at home against Auburn (11-0, 3-7 SEC) the following Wednesday but then hits the road to take on Ole Miss (16-7, 7-3 SEC), which beat UF 66-63 to win the 2013 SEC Tournament last year. The Gators wrap things up with a road game at Vanderbilt (13-9, 5-5 SEC), considered one of the most difficult venues for visiting teams in the nation and a place Florida has not won a game since March 5, 2011.
“I’m not overly joyous and great because we’re 10-0,” said Donovan. “I think it will all shake out at the end after 18 games, and we’re past the half-way point right now.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Donovan improved to 14-2 all-time against his former assistants with an undefeated 8-0 record against Alabama head coach Anthony Grant.
» The Gators are currently riding school-record and nation-long 29-game home winning streak dating back to March 4, 2012.
» UF extended another program record by recording its 15th-straight SEC home win.
» Florida is on a 15-game winning streak and has won 20 of its last 21 games.
» The Gators have opened league play with a 10-0 record for just the second time under Donovan. The school record for best SEC start is 11-0, set in 2007.
» Florida is now 73-9 since the beginning of the 2011-12 season when holding an opponent under 71 points in a game.
» UF has started 21-2 through 23 games for the second time in school history (2006-07).
» The Gators are 9-2 this season in single-digit decisions after going 0-6 in such contests during the 2012-13 campaign.
» Senior center Patric Young scored 11 points, passing Al Horford for 40th on Florida’s career scoring list (1,124). He also registered two dunks in the game, jumping Joakim Noah for fifth in the unofficial stat category (131).
» Donovan on freshman point guard Kasey Hill making some strides: “The biggest thing he needs to do right now is give me confidence defensively. And he’s capable right now. And I know he’s young and he’s learning and he’s getting better. But he’s gotten much better offensively. He really can push the ball, he can make plays in the open floor, he’s really unselfish, he’s a great team guy. But defensively, sometimes, when you’re playing a guy like Releford, you cannot get hooked up on screens and you’ve got to be able to anticipate stuff that’s going to happen. I think he’s growing; I think he’s getting better.”
» Donovan on getting more out of Florida’s bench: “I need DeVon Walker to play more minutes … I think Kasey Hill needs to play more minutes. I think Chris Walker needs to play a few more minutes. This was a hard game for Chris because they’re playing zone, there’s things you want to run against a zone. He’s not all caught up on our zone offense. You get pretty simplistic when he’s out there. When they switched and went man-to-man, we put him in there and against man he did a pretty good job. But we need some of our younger guys to maybe grow a little bit faster than maybe they are right now, and maybe that’s unfair to them, but that would help our team.”
@ONLYGATORS TWEET OF THE GAME
Young just flew in from Ocala with a ridiculous block that will definitely be #SCtop10 tonight.
— OnlyGators.com (@onlygators) February 8, 2014