Gators do it all in thorough rout of LSU
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The week began with the Florida Gators voted No. 1 in the nation. Then came a narrow victory against so-so Vanderbilt that clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference title, followed two days later by a loss by Kentucky that locked up the overall league crown.
And all of it amid buzz about whether the Gators — with their string of seven consecutive hard-fought victories at the back end of a school-record winning streak — deserved all this prosperity in the first place.
So Billy Donovan set out to settle down his team and put some things in perspective.
"You don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something, where you’re back on your heels [worrying] about losing No. 1, not losing at home, wanting to keep this streak going," Donovan said. "You don’t want to get to a point where you’re trying to avoid things and prevent things [because], inevitably, you get tight, frozen and you don’t play."
Suffice to say, Donovan had the Gators in the right frame of mind Saturday.
Try 57 percent shooting from the floor, 56.5 percent from 3-point range, one of the best defensive performances of the season against a high-scoring team, all of it rolled up in a timely 79-61 runaway victory over LSU that marked the 21st straight win and kept the Gators perfect in SEC play for their maniacal sellout crowd of 12,589 at the O’Connell Center.
Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith came off the bench to score 16 points for his second straight red-hot game. Senior forward Casey Prather made six of seven shots to finish with 14 points, while sophomore guard Michael Frazier II led a 3-point onslaught by going 4-from-6 from the arc in what may have been — across the board — the most complete game effort by the team to date.
"If we shoot 3s like that, we’ll never lose," senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
The 13 long-distance makes was the most by the Gators (27-2, 16-0) this season, but just as impressive as how they scored was how they prevented the Tigers (17-11, 8-8) and their league-leading offense from putting the ball in the basket.
LSU came in averaging 76.6 points in conference play, but were held to its second-lowest output of the season, thanks to a UF defense that allowed just 38.3 percent for the game and surrendered just three baskets from the 3-point line.
Even freshman center Chris Walker got into the act, posting career-highs of six rebounds and 14 minutes of action while banging against LSU’s talented front court duo of Johnny O’Bryant (18 points, 7 rebounds) and Jordan Mickey (14 points, 10 rebounds).
"Everybody was locked in and focused from the start," Prather said. "We paid attention to the scouting report, we helped each other on defense, we helped the helper and did exactly what Coach Donovan wanted us to do."
LSU turned the ball over on four of its first five possessions, mostly against UF’s fullcourt pressure, and quickly fell behind 8-0. The Tigers never got closer than six the rest of the way, trailed by as many as 18 in the first half and 29 in the second.
Prather was right about the Gators doing exactly what Donovan wanted them to do relative to the game.
But they also listened to his bigger-picture message.
"I told our guys that sometimes everything looks rosy on the outside and people look at the bottom line and the result," Donovan said. "But I still look at, ‘How is our team playing?’ I didn’t think we were playing up to our ability and potential the last few games."
Over the previous three games, UF had to come from behind in the final minute to beat Auburn at home by five, overtake Ole Miss in the second to win by four on the road, then survive a comeback and last-second 3-point shot for the tie at Vandy.
No, they weren’t playing well.
LSU just happened to be next in line.
"They were hitting on all cylinders," said Tigers coach Johnny Jones, whose team had as many field goals (9) as turnovers at halftime. "They were great defensively and made big shots."
Early and often.
No slow start this time. The Gators, who came in making just 33 percent in SEC play (good for 9th in the league) from the 3-point line, nailed their first three treys, built a quick double-digit lead that stood nearly the entire first half and went to the locker room up 41-25.
"We were getting open shots," Finney-Smith said. "And we were knocking them down."
Those long balls just stretched the LSU defense even more in the second half. At one point after the break, the floor got so spread out that Prather scored three straight baskets by going straight down the lane and finger-rolling the ball into the hoop.
Meanwhile, Florida didn’t get any cooler after the break. After going 9-for-14 in the first half, the Gators went 4-for-9 in the second, and it didn’t matter if they were in the halfcourt or in transition.
"I was happy to see the ball go in for those guys," Donovan said.
He had to be delighted to see his players run away to their third-largest margin of victory in SEC play — and against one of the league’s better teams — after dealing with all the outside distractions the week before.
As he left the court following the 32nd straight win at the O’Dome, a fan from the Rowdy Reptile section yelled at the UF coach.
"Hey Billy! Are you gonna let ’em cut the nets down?"
The answer was no.
With net-cutting, comes an element of finality. This team has a championship tucked away, yes, but there’s other things to achieve that Donovan will dangle for his players.
Example: The 27 wins broke the record for most in a regular season by a UF team.
"I’ve talked to them about chasing things," said Donovan, who now is pointing his team toward the pursuit of a perfect SEC season, the next step of which comes Tuesday at South Carolina. "But I’ve also talked to them about protecting their identity. Who they are. They come in every single day with the understanding that if they stick to the process — to what goes into preparing for each game — and willing to understand the competitive situation."
That’ll again be the goal for Sunday. To their credit, that’s the only day the Gators will be focusing on. And they’ve gotten really good at it.