Just days after turning in an embarrassing performance on the road, the Florida Gators picked themselves up and came through for head coach Billy Donovan with a dominant 66-49 win over the Tennessee Volunteers on Saturday evening at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida.
The victory gave Donovan an even 500 wins for his career, making him the second-youngest coach in Division I college basketball history to reach the mark.
Florida (14-15, 7-9 SEC) had one of its best showings of the season against Tennessee (14-14, 6-10 SEC), due in large part to the return of one of the Gators’ best players.
OnlyGators.com breaks down Saturday’s action with nine quick-hitters:
It was over when: With less than four minutes to play, sophomore point guard Kasey Hill took off on a fastbreak, driving the lane and laying in a basket to put Florida back on top by 19 points. Hill, who finished with seven points (three layups) and seven assists to just two turnovers, played a composed game and helped lead UF to victory. “He takes responsibility. He knows he has not played great. … He does try to come back. The biggest thing with him that I’d like to see more is he’s just got to get more fire and passion and competitive spirit,” Donovan said. “He gets down on himself. I keep trying to explain to him, ‘If you’re competing, you’ve got to be able to move past that.’”
Significant stretch: Soon after redshirt junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith rose up and drained his fourth trey of the evening (on four attempts), pushing Florida’s lead to a game-high 23 points, Tennessee went off on a shot 8-2 run to cut its deficit to 15 points with just over seven minutes to play. UT was unable to progress from there.
Prominent player: Finney-Smith’s return cannot be overlooked. Though other Gators played well, he led the way with a game-high 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting, draining his first four treys (4-of-5 overall) and grabbing a game-high 10 boards with one block.
“When you’re coming off a suspension and all of a sudden you got to go out there on the court, there can be this level of remorse,” Donovan said. “He’s got to be able to move past it. He served his time. He paid his penalty. It’s over with. He needs to move forward and how he moves forward is really important. I thought he was really locked in and ready to play. I thought he wanted to play well because of what had happened, him missing three games and being out of practice a little bit.”
First half focus: Florida played its best half of basketball this season in the opening 20 minutes of Saturday’s contest, going 16-for-23 from the field (9-for-12 inside the arc, 7-for-11 beyond it) and registering 14 assists on 16 baskets. The Gators used a driving layup by Hill with six seconds to play to take an 18-point lead and end the half on a 9-0 run. The 40 points scored by UF in the opening period marked its highest-scoring half in league play this season.
Perfect play: With the shot clock winding down midway through the first half, redshirt junior F Jacob Kurtz found sophomore F Chris Walker, who caught the alley-oop pass and finished with a reverse slam for a highlight play.
Standout stats: The Gators proved they were truly playing team basketball on Saturday but how they passed the ball. UF registered 21 assists on 24 made baskets and barely took any questionable shots throughout the contest. “Overall, offensively, the thing I was most pleased about was the 21 assists,” Donovan said.
What it means: Florida did its job on Saturday and finally earned Donovan his 500th career win, moving within one game of a .500 record on the season. The Gators must win their final two regular-season games to avoid finishing under .500 for the first time since 1997-98.
Next up: UF will host Texas A&M in the O’Dome on Tuesday night.
Everything else: Florida’s 23-point lead was its largest in a game since Jan. 10 vs. Mississippi State (29) … freshman PG Chris Chiozza picked up three fouls with 4:47 to go until the break and was forced to sit for the duration of the first half … UF started 1-for-5 from the foul line before making eight-straight and finishing 8-of-10 … Florida led for 38:26 of the 40-minute game, never allowing Tennessee to gain an advantage … redshirt junior guard Eli Carter, who was battling strep throat, posted 11 points on 3-of-9 shooting with six assists … redshirt senior center Jon Horford added 10 big points on 5-of-7 shooting with four boards … the Gators out-shot the Volunteers in every phase of the game, won the rebounding battle (27-19) and dominated both second-chance (15-3) and bench (33-18) scoring