Gators ground Jayhawks
Published: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 9:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 10, 2013 at 10:44 p.m.
With a mix of defenses, from man to press to zone, Florida delivered its knockout blow early Tuesday night against Kansas.
The Gators weren’t pretty late, but held on for their first signature win of the season. No. 19 Florida’s 67-61 win over No. 13 Kansas in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge followed the basic formula in college basketball of the desperate team at home finding a way to win. Florida’s sellout crowd of 12,423 at the O’Connell Center played a factor, rattling a Kansas team that started four talented but green freshmen.
The most talented of those four freshmen, Kansas 6-foot-8 phenom Andrew Wiggins, nearly shot the Jayhawks all the way back, scoring 18 of his team-high 26 points in the second half. But sparked by a 21-0 first-half run, Florida built a 36-21 halftime lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin led the Gators (7-2) with 18 points, six assists and four steals. The Gators also got a lift off the bench from sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith, who hit his first three 3-point attempts of the game and wound up with 15 points, five rebounds and two steals.
Seniors Patric Young and Casey Prather added 12 points apiece for the Gators, with Prather sinking 10 of 12 free-throw attempts in the second half. But the story of the game for Florida was a defense that helped the Gators generate 28 points off 24 Kansas turnovers.
“I thought the changing defense was good for us in the game,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “When we went big we went with a 1-3-1 zone that kind of opened up the game for us a little bit. We also played 2-3 (zone), we pressed, we were able to give them some different looks.”
Down 10-3 early, Florida responded with its best defensive stretch of the season. The Gators held Kansas (6-3) for an eight-minute, 43-second stretch during their 21-0 run. In that span, Florida forced six turnovers and held Kansas to 0-for-8 from the floor.
“It was crazy,” Young said. “We were so locked in and focused. We held them to 10 points for so long and 16 turnovers in the first half, we were very excited about that.”
Kansas struggled adjusting to Florida’s varied defensive looks. Other than Wiggins, no other Kansas player scored in double figures.
“When things started to go bad, we didn’t do anything about it,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “That was frustrating.”
As terrific as Florida played defensively in the first half, the Gators came out tentatively offensively in the second half, which bled into its defense. Donovan was more concerned postgame about the Gators giving up 40 points in the second half and being unable to close the game out at the free-throw line. The Gators finished the game 20 of 34 (58.8 percent) from the charity stripe.
“I just didn’t like our intensity level,” Donovan said. “And I can’t figure out, is it a fatigue issue because we’re not playing a lot of guys or guys are playing too many minutes or is it something else.”
The Gators actually played a rotation of eight healthy scholarship players, including freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who returned from a sprained ankle to finish with six points and three assists in 20 minutes off the bench. Hill hit a pair of big free throws with 8.3 seconds left to close out the game.
“We gave up a lot of points in the second half, I think it was like 40,” Wilbekin said. “That’s something we have to learn from. That’s what we have to take away from this game.”
Wilbekin said he just sighed when Wiggins hit his third straight 3-pointer down the stretch, which cut UF’s lead to 60-55 with 56 seconds remaining.
“I was thinking, how can we leave their best player that open,” Wilbekin said.
But Florida made enough plays late to bounce back from a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer to Connecticut and pick up its first win against a ranked team this season. The Gators also extended their home winning streak to 21 games, their second longest home-win streak in school history. Florida’s longest home win streak is 24 straight games from March 1, 2006 to Nov. 20, 2007.
“Every time you play a ranked team, it’s important, because those are the games that define your season,” Wilbekin said. “It was a big game. We all knew it and we wanted to come out and get the W.”
FREE THROWS: Kansas freshman center Joel Embiid, who played last season at The Rock School in Gainesville, made his first start of the season and finished with six points, six rebounds and three blocked shots. … Florida committed a season-low eight turnovers.