When the buzzer finally sounded and Vanderbilt’s mad bombers had been diffused as much by an expired clock as anything, Florida’s Egor Koulechov tossed the ball over his head and into the air.
It wasn’t exactly a celebration as much as it was a deep breath.
“It was a little bit of a relief,” Koulechov said. “But we’ve gotta be better than that.”
For a half, they were about as good as they can be. They were the Gators that America fell in love with in Portland, a team that made almost half of its 3-point shot attempts and looked surprisingly dominating for a team with no real inside presence.
But in the second half, the mighty Gators reverted back to the team that can’t guard anybody and that made things very uncomfortable in the O-Dome.
Florida allowed 54 second-half points, which almost always is a recipe for a loss. The 20-point first half lead combined with almost ridiculous free throw shooting (in a good way) allowed the Gators to escape with a win they had to have.
It’s rare to have a must-win game in December in college basketball. This was about as close as you can come.
As we all know, Florida had lost three times to Vandy last season and it was mostly the same collection of characters back for the Commodores. Seriously, are Riley LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis seventh-year seniors or is it just me?
It has been a struggle so far for coach Bryce Drew’s team this season, but we all remember how it was a strong finisher last year, especially against UF.
Getting the ’Dores early at home was a plus in a conference that looks drastically better and that drastically better starts Tuesday night.
So it was important for the Gators to find a way to win Saturday at home even if the crowd was not at platinum O-Dome volume.
The first half put the Gators in position.
The second half was about finishing.
And to finish, Florida had to finish at the rim.
Sometimes that meant an acrobatic shot through contact. Sometimes it meant making free throws.
Mostly, it meant nobody try to be a hero.
“We did a good job of not panicking,” said Chris Chiozza, whose driving basket with 50 seconds remaining was the biggest make of the night. “We just had to keep attacking. Get the ball to the hole.”
Because Florida was able to do that often enough, Vandy never got a real run going. Instead, the Commodores had to chip away, never scoring more than six straight points, finally cutting the lead to four points before Chiozza’s big shot.
“When he makes shots like he did,” Drew said, “he’s almost unguardable.”
Florida’s best free throw shooters kept driving the ball to the basket after attempting 15 threes in the first half because the odds were much better of either making a two-footer in traffic or getting free throws.
They also knew the Commodores would go one-on-one defensively rather than leave a shooter open outside the arc.
“Sometimes, teams are going to make us finish in the paint,” said Florida coach Mike White.
And they did.
More importantly, White said, “we didn’t lose our minds” when Vandy started to rally in the second half. (Although White did on one bizarre call late in the game, spinning in the air like an ice dancer).
Still, he has plenty of evidence to show his team that this was a nice win, but hardly a complete one. When you give up 54 points in a half, nobody is getting nominated for defensive player of the week.
“The next step is to put 40 (minutes) together,” White said.
With what lies ahead, these guys are going to need a lot of 40-minute games. Vandy may have owned Florida last season, but they are also in the pit of misery this season when it comes to RPI and last in the SEC in scoring.
That’s why Florida had to win Saturday. It’s why the Gators had to get out of their own scoring slump.
“We’d lost our mojo a little bit offensively,” Koulechov said. “But conference play is where it’s at.”
Especially this season.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.