Gators growing confident in close games

Florida forward Will Yeguete (15) and guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) tie up South Carolina guard Tyrone Johnson (4) during the Gators' 74-58 win at the O'Connell Center on Jan. 8.

Matt Stamey / Staff photographer
Published: Friday, January 17, 2014 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 9:39 p.m.

Before the 2013-14 season, Florida players vowed to stay more connected in tight games.

Through the first 16 games, Florida appears to have followed through on that promise. The Gators are 3-1 in games decided by five points or less so far this season and 6-2 in games decided by single digits.

“We have an internal confidence as a team when it gets in those types of situations, we just have a confidence we're going to pull it out,” Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “Especially after winning so many of those games. It just builds more confidence.”

The No. 7 Gators (14-2, 3-0 SEC) will be heavy favorites in their next game Saturday at Auburn. But the Gators could still be in for a close game. Auburn (8-6, 0-3 SEC) lost its first two league games against Ole Miss and Missouri by a combined five points. The Tigers have kept games close this season, but have been unable to get over the hump.

Close losses were a glaring issue for the Gators last season. The Gators went 0-6 in games decided by single digits last season and 0-4 in games decided by five points or less. Florida still won the SEC regular season title in 2012-13, but late meltdowns in losses at Arizona, at Missouri, at Kentucky and against Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament title game prevented the Gators from perhaps earning a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament (the third-seeded Gators eventually lost to Michigan by 20 points in the Elite Eight).

This season, different players have stepped up in clutch moments for the Gators. Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith had a big offensive rebound, drew a foul with 1.3 seconds left, and made 1 of 2 free throws in a 67-66 win over Florida State. In a 77-75 win over Memphis, Florida senior forward Casey Prather scored UF's final eight points and went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line down the stretch.

And in UF's 84-82 overtime win at Arkansas last Saturday, Wilbekin hit an eight-foot bank shot at the buzzer to tie the game and scored nine of his 18 points in overtime.

In evaluating close games, Florida coach Billy Donovan said he's more focused on his team's execution and decision-making than the result. Donovan has been around college basketball long enough to know fluke plays can happen. In 2010, Donovan watched former Gator standout Chandler Parsons heave a 75-footer to lead the Gators to a stunning overtime win at North Carolina State.

In the Florida State win earlier this season, Seminoles guard Ian Miller launched a halfcourt shot on line at the buzzer that barely rimmed out off the back iron.

“Our guys have a better understanding of what we're trying to do,” Donovan said. “When you are in those situations, it doesn't necessarily mean that just because you went through it last year you are going to end up on the winning side of it, because I think any time you are getting into those situations, anything can happen.”

But Donovan said he was pleased with Wilbekin's decision-making late in the Arkansas game. On the final shot that forced overtime, Wilbekin was involved in a two-man play with Finney-Smith. Initially, Wilbekin stepped back and was tempted to launch a 3-point attempt for the win. But when Arkansas defender Rashad Madden slipped, Wilbekin drove in for the game-tying bank shot.

“If he'd stopped and bombed a 3, you know, it wouldn't have been a really good decision,” Donovan said. “But he did what he was supposed to do. He got to the teeth of the defense.”

Whether UF's strong performances in close games continue remains to be seen. Florida still has issues shooting free throws (eighth in SEC at 66.2 percent), which could prove costly in a tight game.

But Wilbekin said last year's struggles in close games are in the rear-view mirror.

“It doesn't really fuel us, because we're not really thinking about it,” Wilbekin said. “But I'm sure it helps us.”

Prather questionable

Florida announced Thursday that senior leading scorer Casey Prather remains questionable for Saturday's game at Auburn.

According to UF's athletic website, Prather did some light non-contact work in Thursday's practice.

Prather was Florida's most consistent scorer at the time of his injury, averaging 17 points per game while reaching double figures in all of UF's 14 games this season. The 6-foot-6 forward has been out since Jan. 9 with a bruised knee. In his absence, Florida has gone 2-0 with wins over Arkansas and Georgia.

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