Florida has no problem with LSU and easily advances to the SEC semifinals with a victory Friday.
By GREG POGUE FS South
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Apparently, the rumors of
Florida's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Sputtering down the stretch but winning the Southeastern Conference regular-season title nonetheless, the
Gators arrived Friday afternoon at the quarterfinal round of the SEC tournament with a vengeance. Just ask
LSU, which watched 13th-ranked Florida score early and often during an 80-58 blowout victory that wasn't nearly as close as the 22-point margin might suggest.
"Give our guys credit, they came out focused and ready to play," said Gators coach Billy Donovan, whose team advances to Saturday's semifinal against Alabama.
Much of that focus for the Gators comes from the angst caused by closing the regular season by going 6-4 in their last 10 games, including a 3-3 mark in the last six. That included the regular-season finale last Saturday at Kentucky in which the Gators went scoreless the final seven-plus minutes and watched the Wildcats close on an 11-0 run to steal the victory.
"I think coming out of our last regular-season game, we had I think a few days to practice and get better on some things," Donovan said. "And certainly the first time in a long time, I think we've got our full complement of players back healthy. I think that time from Sunday until Thursday served our team well."
Showing no signs of being slowed after slightly tweaking a knee during practice on Wednesday, senior forward Erik Murphy scored a career-high 27 points and pulled 12 rebounds, both game highs. He made 11 of 15 shots, including hitting 5 of 7 on 3-pointers.
And he certainly noted the intensity during the practice sessions this week leading up to the SEC tournament that the Gators last won in 2007 at the end of a three-year title run.
"Yeah, practice was tough," Murphy said. "You know, coach (Donovan) was focused on certain things. He made it hard on us in practice to see how we would respond.
"And I think we did a good job in practice and good job today responding."
Junior guard Scottie Wilbekin added 14 points for the Gators, who also got 10 points and six rebounds from junior center Patric Young. The Gators shot 50.9 percent from the field, including 56.3 in the first half as they steadily blew the game open and settled into a 43-28 halftime lead.
For the 22nd time this season, Florida (25-6) held an opponent to less than 60 points. When that happens, the Gators are 22-0. Nationally, they closed the regular season ranked third in scoring defense (53.2 points per game) and fourth in field-goal percentage defense (37.3).
"I think Florida is one of the better defensive basketball teams in the country," said LSU first-year coach Johnny Jones, whose
Tigers shot only 33.3 percent from the field, including a paltry 25.9 percent during a second half in which they trailed by as many as 35 points.
LSU (19-12) got 14 points from senior guard Charles Carmouche, the only Tiger to reach double figures.
"They've done a good job of making sure they rotate," Jones said of Florida's defense. "They do a great job of helping. They're long, have great length, and with their size, quickness and the strength that they have inside, they can make it difficult for you."
When the Gators win, they usually do so in blowout fashion similar to Friday's pasting of LSU at Bridgestone Arena. But there is still a lingering concern about the team's ability to win close games. In games decided by 11 points or less this season, Florida lost all six. But in their March 2 home win over Alabama, the Gators trailed by eight points late in the game before blowing to a 64-52 win.
Granted, all four of Florida's losses in league play that came in those final 10 outings were on the road at Arkansas (80-69), Missouri (63-60), Tennessee (64-58) and Kentucky (61-57) — all teams that carried legitimate NCAA Tournament aspirations into March. But then again, the team's inability to close the deal in any one of those games has some Gators fans and many college basketball pundits wondering if Florida can win a close game that is sure to come once NCAA tourney play begins.
"Some of the things we have to do in those situations have been our turnovers," Donovan said of finishing games. "That's been a problem for us. You look down at the stat sheet, and we have 12 turnovers (in a game), but five come in a short period of time.
"Those things have kind of hurt us. When you don't take care of the ball, you don't get shots."
Donovan said, however, that he is not concerned with his team's ability to finish games. Just being in those close games, even though they were losses, will aid his team in the long run, he contended
"When you are going through a regular season, those are going to be things that you have to address with your team," Donovan said of finishing close games. "And I am happy that we have been in those situations. How we respond in the future, I don't know. But the fact that maybe we didn't close out some games has no bearing on this team going forward."
In the last six regular-season games, Donovan figured the lack of offensive flow caused the team to slip somewhat.
"Some of our shooting percentages and the number of points we were scoring, everything was down," he said. "Our assists were down. We can score a lot more. We can absorb (guards Mike) Rosario and (Kenny) Boynton not shooting the ball well when they take good shots and providing they are doing other things and sharing the ball. … They're assists to turnover ratio was down in those six games.
" … That's where you get hurt. That's when your numbers start to dip. That's when your shooting percentages start to dip. And that's when you're not really playing off each other."