No. 1 Florida escapes with win over Vanderbilt
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- History has a way of repeating itself at Vanderbilt's venerable Memorial Gym.
It nearly did again this time around for Florida, the new No. 1 team in the country.
The previous time the Gators played while ranked atop the Associated Press standings came on Feb. 17, 2007, and that turned out to be a loss to the very same Commodores they barely beat 57-54 Tuesday in front of 11,132 upset-eager fans.
"Maybe more gets made in terms of the team that's ranked No. 1," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after his team played its first game this season with the country's top ranking, "and there's not enough credit or emphasis placed on the opponent getting totally jacked up to play."
Four of the last five times a No. 1 team had visited Vanderbilt, it had been sent packing with a defeat. That was almost the case again, but Florida (26-2, 15-0) survived a 3-point shot by Commodores guard Alex Fuller that would have forced overtime and extended its program-best winning streak to 20 games.
"We're going to give them our best shot to prove that we are where we are because we have been able to win some games," said Gators senior center Patric Young, who had 12 points and seven rebounds. "We have a great team. And this team loves to win.
"So, we just have to have the mindset that we can't take any team for granted. It brings the competitiveness out of us to come out and ready to go."
Florida had just as soon this season turn out like that 2006-07 campaign when it was last ranked No. 1 during the regular season. It marked the second of consecutive national championships by the Gators, who are off to their best start in program history and opened 15-0 in Southeastern Conference play for the first time.
Four of the Gators' last five wins have come on the road, including stops at 18th-ranked Kentucky and NCAA tourney hopefuls Tennessee and Ole Miss. The five victories have been won by an average of only six points per game.
"It has been a five-game grind to our basketball team to where you are getting everybody's best shot," said Donovan, whose team clinched at least a share of the Southeastern Conference championship with Tuesday's win. "And then emotionally, you are trying to get yourselves up to play at that level."
While getting everybody's best shot, the Gators also needed one of their own from sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who had game highs with 19 points and nine rebounds. Leading by only two points with less than a minute to play, he knocked down a huge 3-pointer from the left wing to provide Florida with just enough room to survive.
"You know, it was just me having confidence in my shot," said Finney-Smith, who had made only one of 23 attempts from 3-point land before making 3-of-6 tonight. "I was kind of in a shooting slump, but my teammates did a great job telling me to just keep shooting the ball."
Once again, Vanderbilt (15-12, 7-8) proved feisty despite being down to only seven scholarship players. Of their last four losses, the worst came by six points at South Carolina.
The Commodores were led by senior forward Rod Odom with 12 points and senior guard Kyle Fuller with 11 points. Freshman forward Luke Kornet gave the team a big lift off the bench with eight points, including a pair of huge 3-pointers as Vanderbilt rallied down the stretch.
"The game came down to one or two possessions," Stallings said, "and (Florida was) able to make the plays they needed to make. They are a very good team. They play well together."
Of the game-winning shot by Finney-Smith, Stallings said that was the one Gator on the court he would have chosen to take the shot.
"That's what makes them good," Stallings said. "They've got options. They've got guys who can jump up and make shots.
" ... We did a good job. But that's why they're the No. 1 team in the country. They've got weapons."
After leading 32-25 at halftime, the Gators steadily built their lead to as many as a dozen points midway through the second half. But an 11-2 run, anchored by the 3-pointers by Kornet sandwiched around another trey by Odom, pulled the Commodores within 48-44 with just over 8 minutes to play.
Commodores junior guard Dai-Jon Parker was then fouled attempting a 3-pointer from the left wing, but he could make only one of three free throws to leave the Commodores trailing 48-45 with 7:47 to play.
Florida pushed back ahead by five on a 3-pointer by sophomore swingman Devon Walker, but Fuller raced the length of the floor to make an acrobatic shot while being fouled by Young -- and then converted the traditional 3-point play -- to pull the Commodores within one possession once again at 53-50 with 3:16 remaining.
Two more free throws by Fuller with 1 minute to play got Vanderbilt within 54-52, but the dagger by Finney-Smith pushed Florida back up 57-52 with 30.6 seconds remaining. Fuller answered with a driving layup to get the Commodores to within 57-54 with 18.7 seconds remaining.
"With what we do offensively, he's going to get shots," Donovan said of Finney-Smith, who scored in double figures for only the second time in 12 games. "He's going to get them up there at the top of the key. I think when he starts to make some shots, it opens up other things for his game.
"That was a big shot with us up by two. It was a good look."
Florida had a chance to put the game away at the foul line with 10 seconds to play, but senior guard Scottie Wilbekin missed the front end of a bonus. After taking time out in the front court with 6.6 seconds remaining, the Commodores got one last look to tie the game and send it to overtime, but a 3-pointer by Fuller from the top of the key was off the mark.
After turning the ball over 11 times in the first half, Vanderbilt was fortunate to trail only 32-25 by intermission. Helping offset their woes handling the ball against the hounding Florida man-to-man defense, the Commodores made 52.6 percent of their field goal attempts, including going 4-for-9 on 3-pointers for 44.4 percent.
"Our guards (Fuller and Parker) had eight turnovers," Stallings said, "and that's probably not going to win against a team like that."