GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This one had an eerie kind of feel about it.
And not in a good way.
The Richmond Spiders not only were the aggressors Saturday, but had 12th-ranked Florida playing to their tempo and to their strengths, and in doing so had command of Saturday’s game at the O’Connell Center, up by four with eight minutes to go and beaming with a confidence the Gators lacked.
Billy Donovan saw it.
"We looked pouty, moody, inconvenienced, not focused, like it’s not going [our] way," the UF coach said.
It wasn’t, but at that point — after missing 13 of 15 shots from 3-point range and allowing Richmond’s guards to set the tone — someone had to give the Gators a spark.
That’s when Michael Frazier stepped up with back-to-back 3-pointers to give UF the lead. And after Richmond went up again by three, it was Scottie Wilbekin. When Richmond didn’t give up, neither did Casey Prather. Or Patric Young. Or Dorian Finney-Smith.
Basically, the entire Florida team — in a sluggish back-and-forth brawl of 12 lead chances — responded with a lightning strike of positive plays to turn what easily could have been a downer of a non-conference finale into skin-toughening 67-58 win before 12,012 on hand at the O’Dome to welcome in the new year.
Frazier scored 18 points, with Young throwing in 15 more to go with six rebounds. Prather poured in 12 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Finney-Smith only scored five, but one of his baskets was an exquisitely timed 3-pointer, but he also hopped off the bench to grab 13 rebounds and helped the Gators (11-2) close out a brutal (and very successful) pre-Southeastern Conference slate.
It was hard, which means it was good for this team. Really, really good, especially with the first of 18 straight SEC games set for Wednesday night at home against South Carolina.
"It was all about the mindset," Prather said. "We looked at each other and made up our minds to do whatever we had to do to win the game."
A 16-2 spurt, including 12 straight, was the ticket.
Frazier’s consecutive 3s may have woken the Gators up, but it didn’t seem to deter the Spiders (10-5) too much. Though Richmond went from up 35-31 to down quickly 37-35 — and with the crowd in a tizzy — the visitors soldiered on. The guard combo of Cedrick Lindsay (19 points) and 5-foot-8, 140-pound Kendall Anthony (15 points) gave Florida fits from the 3-point line, though UF certainly was not blameless in the developments.
"From the scouting reports, we knew were supposed to go over the screens on their handoffs," Finney-Smith said. "We just didn’t do it."
Eventually, they did. First, though, the Gators had to weather some ruts of poor movement on offense, a 1-for-10 start from the floor from point guard Scottie Wilbekin and that woe-is-me attitude Donovan referenced.
That’s when Young, the senior center, went after his teammates.
"I could see we weren’t really fighting," he said. "We were allowing human nature to seep in. There was slippage. I wanted our guys to get fired up."
And that’s when the gas met the match.
After the Spiders split the Gators’ zone for an easy layup, UF trailed 48-45 with six minutes to go, but Wilbekin (10 points, 2 assists) made a floater from the baseline to cut it back to one. On the ensuing possession, Florida locked in on defense and forced a desperation 3-pointer with the shot clock winding down. The miss turned into a run-out in transition, with Wilbekin feeing Prather for a layup and lead.
Back came Richmond, though, with forward Alonzo Nelson-Ododa sinking a 15-footer from the elbow. The Spiders led again, 50-49, with 4:48 to go.
Only this time, they didn’t score again for 3 1/2 minutes. By that time, the Gators had run off 12 straight points.
Florida didn’t do itself any favors down the stretch, going 3-for-9 at the free-throw line to finish, making matters more interesting than they needed to be. Richmond actually got the margin to six, 64-58, with 39 seconds remaining, but in the end UF’s defense won the day down the stretch.
"We kept moving our feet, we stayed locked in defensively and we did not give them any easy shots," Frazier said. "We didn’t do that in the first half, but we did when it mattered."
Things start mattering a lot more now.
The Gators, after all, are defending SEC champions.
"We could have been a little more focused for this game," Young said. "But overall, with the level of competition we got from our non-conference games, we should have some confidence going into the SEC."
Games like Saturday can only help. Especially winning them.