Trailing 6-4 early in the contest, Donovan decided to put Florida in the full-court press early, and the move undoubtedly paid off for the Gators. Florida erupted on a 25-0 scoring stretch lasting seven minutes and including a flurry of threes and plenty of great looks inside the paint as well. It was likely the longest run that most of the players on the court had ever been a part of (both ways) and something that put the game out of reach for Norfolk State before the players even got a chance to get a good sweat going.
That defense-first mindset is something Donovan has been trying to instill in his team for some time considering he knew that the Gators could pretty much score at will. It finally seems to be settling in.
“I think our defense just propelled us to get some good, easy shots with transition and guys were shooting with confidence,” senior point guard Erving Walker said. “We got some extra work in the gym and it just paid off for us.”
The players’ comments seemed to echo that mindset Donovan has been preaching, which he explained after they left the podium.
“The whole key for us was we did a great job defensively where we rebounded the basketball,” he said. “Once we rebounded the ball, they do such a great job of applying pressure on the backboard with their guards. I thought if we could come down with clean rebounds, we could get out in transition and run. That really helped us.”
Florida has won their first two NCAA Tournament games by 26 and 34 points, respectively, and finally seems to be playing like the team they were at the beginning of the season. It has been a slow process getting back to this point after sophomore forward Will Yeguete
went down with a broken foot, but Donvoan is pleased to see that the team is finally filling their roles and understanding what it takes to win at this level.
“When Yeguete got hurt, it really changed our team in a lot of ways. It changed us in the press. It changed our rotation in the front court. We had to sometimes go small at a weakness instead of strength. That was a different dynamic because of our lack of depth,” he explained. “When that happened against Auburn, we then didn’t have very much time to kind of make adjustments. I really felt like coming out of the Vanderbilt game we played harder and we played better after that Georgia game. I was disappointed in that game. We were able to work on some things.
“After playing Kentucky, we had about five days [of preparation] because we had a bye in the SEC Tournament. I really thought that eight or 10 days of practice helped them kind of see how they had to play and the adjustments, and I think I talked about a vision for them now with him being out. That took a little bit of time. I know we dropped some games at the end of the year, but those four games we dropped, two of them were against Kentucky, one was against Vanderbilt on the road, and then obviously the Georgia game was disappointing.
“The one thing about these guys is they do listen, they do try to implement what you ask them to. But there was a period of time there where there was definitely an adjustment that had to go on.”
Boynton said after the game that the confidence Donovan brings with his experience and coaching acumen is something that propels the Gators.
“We know we have a great coach. We believe in coach and everything he tells us to do,” he said. “When we prepare for a game, we try our best to listen to what’s being said because we know he’s been here before as a player and as a coach. I just think, going forward, we need to keep listening to him and doing what’s asked of us.”
That is why Florida is playing at such a high level right now, and it is something not lost on the players whatsoever. However, there is also a common sentiment amongst them that the Gators’ ceiling is much higher than the Sweet 16.
“I think we still have a lot more things that we’re capable of doing and we just haven’t showed it yet,” freshman G Bradley Beal said. “It’s just a matter of time with these last couple of games and I think it’s just going to get exposed pretty soon.”
UF’s elder statesman agreed. “We’re doing a lot better job of understanding each other’s roles and where each other is going to be on the court, so it is making it easier to play with each other. Like Brad said, I think we got a lot of room to improve still,” he added.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Walker on comparing the level of play this year against last year’s team: “It’s two totally different teams, but I would say both teams have really good chemistry – this year’s team and last year’s team. I would say this year’s team, we’re still learning more so than last year’s team, we pretty much had things figured out being an older group. We have guys in different roles and we still have room to grow.”
» Boynton on comparing the two teams’ chemistry levels: “Last year’s team and this year’s team, on a chemistry level, I think they’re similar. Last year’s team we had great leadership with the three seniors that we had.”
» Walker on reaching back-to-back Sweet 16s: “It’s a great feeling. It’s a good accomplishment for us as a team to get back to the Sweet 16, but it would be an even better feeling to get to the Final Four, so we still got work to do.”
» Sophomore center Patric Young on reaching back-to-back Sweet 16s: “It’s not far enough.”
» Redshirt junior G Mike Rosario on getting to advance to the Sweet 16: “I dreamed of this. That was the reason why I made the decision to come here and now it’s here. Now we have a big opportunity now to go play in Phoenix. There are 16 teams left and it’s a great experience and a great feeling.”
» Donovan, half-joking, on Boynton’s rebounding on Sunday: “Kenny Boynton, during the year it would take him five games to get eight rebounds, but he got in there and rebounded the ball well.”
» Boynton on his career-high eight boards: “It was a level of focus. We know coming in the two ways that they beat Missouri was rebounding and getting loose balls. It was just a level of focus on everything boxing out and attacking the rim to get the rebounds.”
» Boynton on breaking out of his shooting slump: “Pretty much I tried to do a better job recently attacking the rim. I attacked the rim and I tried to get fouled early in the game and that kind of put me in a rhythm later in the game.”
» Donovan on sophomore G/F Casey Prather having a 101-degree fever and possibly strep throat: “He actually did a pretty good job. He knocked down a mid-range jumper, had an unbelievable block, but you could just tell how exhausted and tired he was.”
» Donovan on the ups-and-downs of this season: “I’m proud of these guys. They’ve always worked hard. It’s been a great group. There’s been some growth and maturing that has gone on and sometimes maybe it has frustrated me with these guys. I’ve said this before, I think as a coach you always want to expedite sometimes the growing process because you want to get there now. That’s probably not fair to them.”
» Donovan on what speaks to his sterling record in the NCAA Tournament: “Hopefully every coach, and I put myself there, you try to get better every year as a coach. I still think there’s room for improvement all the time. […] There are certain guys that want this kind of stage. There just are. As much as you can talk to guys about wanting the stage, sometimes it’s a different kind of stage that is a little bit different for them. That kind of mentality can go a long way. I really think, in this tournament, you got to have players that play fearlessly on both ends of the floor and are not worrying about making mistakes and are competitive and are driven to want to be great and want to try to be the best they can [be].”