On Friday morning, prior to departing for Stegeman Coliseum in Athens, Georgia, for the 12 p.m. tip-off Saturday against the Bulldogs, coach Mike White once again bemoaned Florida’s play — or lack thereof — in the decisive final minutes of an SEC contest.
“Mental toughness. Discipline. Preparation. It’s a combination of all those things. Leadership, starting with me. Defensively, we’ve been — outside of the last four minutes of the first SEC games and the first game of the season — we’ve been elite. The last four minutes of the four SEC games we’re giving up almost 50 percent, I think right at 50 (percent on three-pointers),” White said. “That can’t happen if you’re going to be a good team. When it’s winning time, you can’t freeze up offensively and defensively. We have to do what got us there and do it even better.”
White, now in his fourth year at Florida, has frequently criticized the players, in addition to himself, throughout UF’s 9-7 start this season. He revealed the Gators spent a significant portion of Thursday’s practice working on late-game scenarios; when it comes to practice, however, a step forward in one area may come at the expense of other facets, said White.
“You’re taking away from focusing on other things in practice as well. I mean, that’s how it works — in these long seasons, when kids have classes and you only have a certain amount of hours in the day, you know that guys are already tired and you want to go for an hour and a half, two hours — we could work on offensive late-game situations for 10 hours and it may not be good enough, and then now you’re not working on blocking out, transition defense, baseline out-of-bounds offense,” he said. “But, obviously it’s been an Achilles’ heel for us. We spent an inordinate amount of time on it yesterday.”
Since opening SEC play, several Gators have admitted there’s a tendency to watch the clock in the closing minutes. And White has described the 2018-19 Gators as “somber” — meaning there’s an onus on substituting complacency for confidence.
The three freshmen, whom White described as “terrific” so far this season, have heard the message.
“Personally, I think I just have to stay aggressive and look to make plays for my teammates and myself throughout the whole game, and I think I need to stay more intact on defense,” freshman point guard Andrew Nembhard, who provided 13 points and eight assists Tuesday against Mississippi State, said. “I think we just have to always play to win and not play not to lose in the clutch and make big plays when they matter.”
The Bulldogs and Gators may share the same record, but that’s about where the similarities end. First-year ’Dogs coach Tom Crean, now in his 19th season of Division I coaching, has seen his squad blown out in all three conference losses this season, with the most recent coming Tuesday as Kentucky turned a four-point lead at halftime into a 20-point win. Florida, on the other hand, has led late in the second half in each game, yet also has a mere win in conference play to show for it.
White, possibly in search of a bright spot, said that’s exactly the message — the Gators aren’t where they should be, but they’re close.
“We can all lose our minds and just talk about how unbelievably negative of an experience this is for all of us. But on the other hand, you can say, ‘Guys, we could easily be sitting here as a top-10 team in the country if we would execute down the stretch, have a little bit more swagger to us, make plays when they need to be made because we’ve been really close to beating some of the best teams in the country,” White said. “I mean, we’re close. We’re very close. I hope that that’s what our guys are thinking. That’s what we’re preaching to our guys, but you never know. If we play discouraged and ‘woe is me and why does this keep happening to us,’ it will keep happening to us. I can guarantee you that. We’ve got to dig ourselves out of the hole that we’re in. No one’s going to do it for us.”
Who: Florida (9-7, 1-3 SEC) vs. Georgia (9-7, 1-3)
When: 12 p.m.
Where: Stegeman Coliseum, Athens, Georgia
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 6.7 ppg; 6.1 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.4 ppg; 5.8 apg
Jalen Hudson; G; 6-6; Sr.; 6.3 ppg; 2.8 rpg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 11.7 ppg; 2.6 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 10.5 ppg; 2.6 3FG
Rayshaun Hammonds; F; 6-8; So.; 13.7 ppg; 6.5 rpg
Nicolas Claxton; F; 6-11; So.; 12.6 ppg; 9.4 rpg
Derek Ogbeide; F; 6-9; Sr.; 9.7 ppg; 6.1 rpg
William Jackson II; G; 6-4; Sr.; 4.8 ppg; 1.3 rpg
Teshaun Hightower; G; 6-5; So.; 8.1 ppg; 2.4 rpg
Notes: Florida and Georgia renew their rivalry, as the Gators look to bounce back from a pair of setbacks against ranked opponents, which marked UF’s first consecutive losses this season … Georgia swept the series last season after the Gators swept the meetings in Mike White’s first two seasons … Florida sports a 113-104 lead in the all-time series vs. the Bulldogs, however, Georgia does own a 63-39 advantage in games contested in Athens … Noah Locke and KeVaughn Allen have stepped up their production in SEC play. Allen has tallied 15.8 points and Locke 13.8 per game during conference action … UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (61.8; 11th nationally) and ranks 2nd in in turnover margin (+4.4).
— Graham Hall