UF trying to maintain poise

St. Petersburg Times (Florida)


NASHVILLE — The way Billy Donovan sees it, there are two ways Florida can approach tonight’s first-round SEC tournament game against Auburn: be completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of what’s at stake, or put everything aside as if this is just another game.

He and the Gators have decided that the latter is the best approach.

“When the game starts, really whatever is on the line, they have to play inside the game,” Donovan said. “That’s what they’ve got to do. When you get in those situations, you can focus on the end result and you can lose perspective of what you’ve got to do inside the game. That’s going to be the most important thing.

“The game is still 40 minutes, the free-throw line is still at 15 feet, the 3-point line is where it is. But what happens is the drama gets created around the game. What’s the difference between a free throw with two seconds to go in the game with the score tied or a free throw that you shoot in the first half with 16 minutes to go? It’s still the same shot, but what happens is it’s the mental part of creating the drama around.”

Make no mistake, there’s a lot at stake. The Gators are on a three-game losing streak – at Georgia, against No. 20 Vanderbilt and at No. 2 Kentucky – and need a win to ensure they aren’t one of the bubble teams waiting on Selection Sunday.

Florida (20-11) beat Auburn 78-70 at home last month. And although the SEC West is 0-24 against the top four teams in the East, the Tigers (15-16) can’t be discounted easily. They are the only SEC team, outside of Kentucky, that has tied or had the lead in the second half of every game.

“The whole side has struggled against the top four teams in the East, and we’ve talked to our kids about having a chance to get one of those wins,” coach Jeff Lebo said.

A shooting slump has plagued Florida’s backcourt for the past 10 games, including 25 percent shooting from 3-point range for freshman guard Kenny Boynton. Sophomore guard Erving Walker is 27.3 percent all season from beyond the arc. Still, the Gators insist they are confident.

“We know what we have to do,” junior forward Chandler Parsons said. “We don’t look at it, we don’t watch the TV, we don’t listen to all that other stuff. We have the mind-set that if we come out and handle our business, we’ll be fine. We have to come out and guard Auburn. They are deadly from the 3-point line, they’ve got one of the hottest shooters in the country right now with Tay Waller. We’ve got to execute, we’ve got to have an all-around good team game and it starts with defense.”

Which will be a challenge for the Gators. Florida is last in the SEC in 3-point defense, and Waller, Auburn’s senior guard, is hitting 57 percent from 3-point range (second nationally) and averaging 25.6 points in the past five games. He’s on a mission tonight.

“As a senior, I don’t want my season to end right now,” Waller said. “We’ve got to give our best effort because we’ve got to win some games.”

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3389.

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Fast facts: SEC tournament

When/where: Today-Sunday; Sommet Center, Nashville

Today’s schedule: South Carolina vs. Alabama, 1 p.m.; LSU vs. Tennessee, 3:15; Florida vs. Auburn, 7:30; Georgia vs. Arkansas, 9:45.

Favorite: Kentucky. After several years of mediocrity in the SEC, the Wildcats are back on top. With SEC player of the year John Wall, and freshman of the year DeMarcus Cousins, they survived the regular season with just two losses. Interestingly, Kentucky coach John Calipari said this week that his team’s goal isn’t to win the SEC title but to solidify what most expect to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Dark horse: Tennessee. It may seem strange to call a No. 3 seed a dark horse, but in this case it’s appropriate. To win it all, the Vols have to win four games in four days, but they are the hottest team entering the tournament.

What Florida must do: Win. Period. The Gators have lost three straight. Guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton have to make shots, and the Gators must defend the 3-point line better – they are last in 3-point defense in the league.

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