Florida at Alabama game preview
TIME: Thursday at 7 p.m.
Of all the things Florida wanted to accomplish this season, playing better in close games was high on the list.
It was right up there behind winning the Southeastern Conference and advancing to the Final Four.
The sixth-ranked Gators knew finding success in tight games would be key to their loftiest goals. So far, it has them poised for big things in 2014.
Florida (15-2, 4-0) is 7-2 in games decided by single digits this season and 3-1 in games decided by two points or less, a stark contrast to the team’s struggles last season.
”We have an internal confidence as a team when it gets in those types of situations,” said point guard Scottie Wilbekin, one of the team’s four senior starters. ”We just have a confidence we’re going to pull it out, especially after winning so many of those games. It just builds more confidence.”
Florida, which plays at Alabama on Thursday, went 0-6 in games decided by less than 10 points last season and 0-4 in games decided by five points or less. Close losses to Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky and Mississippi prevented the Gators from possibly earning a higher seed — they were third — in the NCAA tournament. Florida lost to Michigan by 20 points in a regional final.
Nearly a year later, the Gators believe all those defeats and disappointments have them hardened and better prepared for any situation.
”Our guys have a better understanding of what we’re trying to do,” coach Billy Donovan said. ”When you are in those situations, it doesn’t necessarily mean that just because you went through it last year, you are going to end up on the winning side of it because any time you are getting into those situations, anything can happen.”
And it has.
Florida has won 14 of its last 15 games, the one loss a somewhat fluky buzzer-beater at then-No. 12 UConn. Florida forced Shabazz Napier to take an off-balance shot in the closing second and had three players in position for the rebound, but the ball slipped by them and back to Napier for the game-winner.
The Gators have been on the other end, too. Arkansas looked like it had Florida beat earlier this month, but Alandise Harris missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 17 seconds to play — one of many missed opportunities for the Razorbacks down the stretch — and Wilbekin hit a jumper to send the game into overtime. Florida won 84-82.
Wilbekin also made a jumper at Auburn on Saturday that put Florida up 64-61 with 1:21 remaining after the Tigers whittled down the Gators’ 13-point lead.
”He’s leading our team down the stretch," forward Will Yeguete said. "He’s making good decisions, taking good shots. He’s not trying to force plays. He’s just trying to make something happen. He’s doing a really good job right now of just running the team and taking good shots.”
Others have stepped up, too.
Forward Dorian Finney-Smith had a huge offensive rebound in the final seconds to help beat Florida State 67-66. In a 77-75 victory against Memphis three weeks later, forward Casey Prather scored Florida’s final eight points and went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line down in the closing minutes.
Donovan said he’s more focused on his team’s decisions and execution in tight games than the final outcome.
”What I try to do is look at the game: what are we trying to do, did we execute, did we do our job? Shots go up, are we blocking out, are we chasing balls, what are we doing?” Donovan said. ”I’m looking more, instead of necessarily the result, are we doing the right thing inside those situations? And I think here of late we’ve done a pretty good of that, and hopefully that will continue.”
His team has had some close calls against Alabama (8-9, 2-2), but the Gators have won the past seven meetings. Only one of those games was decided by more than 12 points — two were by three or fewer — and the Crimson Tide led in the second half of both meetings last season even though they were not ranked while Florida was in the top 15.
Alabama has dropped 14 straight against Top 25 foes but was competitive in two such matchups this season, losing 74-64 to then-No. 6 Duke on Nov. 27 and 72-67 to then-No. 11 Wichita State on Dec. 17.
The Tide, though, are coming off a lopsided road loss to a previously ranked Missouri team, 68-47 on Saturday. They shot a season-low 29.2 percent as top scorer Trevor Releford (18.3 ppg) hit 4 of 16 from the field and tied a season low with 10 points.