GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Gators coach Billy Donovan wasn’t sure what to expect on Saturday in Florida’s first game without junior forward Will Yeguete, who underwent knee surgery Friday and is expected to be lost for the rest of the regular season.
The one thing Donovan knew for certain was that the Gators needed someone to step up and help fill the void left by Yeguete. Yeguete provides Florida with consistent energy and enthusiasm. He is also one of the team’s best defensive players.
The good news for Donovan on Saturday was that two role players — not just one — turned in solid efforts in Florida’s 83-58 win over Mississippi State.
Junior forward Casey Prather came off the bench and scored a season-high 12 points and added five rebounds, one steal and a block in a season-high 22 minutes.
Meanwhile, freshman guard Michael Frazier earned his first career start when Donovan elected to start Kenny Boynton at point guard over regular Scottie Wilbekin. That meant Frazier moved into the starting lineup at shooting guard and his outside shot delivered three 3-pointers in a span of three minutes in the first half.
Frazier finished with 11 points, six rebounds and three assists.
The performance by Prather, who is expected to pick up the majority of Yeguete’s minutes, was somewhat of a relief after what Donovan saw in Florida’s loss at Arkansas on Tuesday.
When Yeguete was injured, Donovan called Prather’s number. He failed to score and had twice as many fouls (four) as rebounds (two) in the loss to the Razorbacks which snapped the Gators’ 10-game win streak.
“We just didn’t get anything out of him,” Donovan said. “To his credit, he has worked hard from Tuesday, to getting in the gym on his own for individual workouts, pushing himself and I think trying to play a little more fearlessly.
“He gave us some good minutes off the bench and did some good things for our team when we needed it from him.”
For Prather, Saturday’s game was a big step in the right direction. He missed the season’s first four games due to a pair of concussions suffered in preseason camp. He then missed four games due to a severely sprained ankle.
Prather said after the game that his injured ankle still isn’t 100 percent but that he is getting close.
More importantly to him was that he was able to help offset Yeguete’s absence.
“He was missed a lot,” Prather said. “Will brought a lot of energy, he brought a lot of positive things to the table, so I just had to come out there and help any way I could.
“I was trying to be aggressive.”
Prather made 5 of 9 shots and threw down a dunk in the first half that brought the crowd to its feet. The early production helped ease Prather into the flow of the game and take his mind off his ankle.
“I got out on the break, got some easy dunks and lay-ups,” Prather said. “So I felt pretty comfortable with my ankle.”
Afterward, Boynton said any concerns whether Prather was up for the challenge had faded from his mind.
“I think he gave us a lot of energy,” Boynton said. “If Prather can give us that consistently every game, we’ll be good.”
As for Frazier, the freshman from Tampa helped extend a two-point lead to an 18-10 lead early in the first half with three 3-pointers. The Bulldogs never threatened after Frazier’s scoring spurt as the Gators improved to 11-0 at the O’Connell this season.
“We were rotating the ball and getting open looks,” Frazier said. “I was just the guy on the other end making shots.”
Said Boynton: “I think he gave us a great boost at the beginning of the game.”
Like Prather, Frazier was cognizant the Gators needed others to step up with Yeguete on the bench holding crutches by his side.
One game into the post-Yeguete portion of the regular season the Gators appear capable of overcoming his loss.
“It was different [without him],” Frazier said. “He brings a lot to our team. But we have to continue to play hard and play together and try to make up for what he did bring to the team.”
With Donovan displeased over Wilbekin’s energy level in practice late last week, he rewarded Frazier with the start.
Frazier has already proven he is a capable outside shooter in his first season. He is showing signs of being able to do more of late.
“Frazier, in practice the last couple of days, he’s been tough, he’s been competitive, he’s battled,” Donovan said.
That sounds like a description of the way Yeguete plays. On Saturday, it was Prather and Frazier diving for loose balls, grabbing tough rebounds and doing whatever it takes.
Donovan hopes there is more to come. He knows the Gators will need it.