Desperation makes Gators a dangerous team
Published: Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 8:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 10:47 p.m.
There were only a few minutes left and his team had been ground into submission like the end of a dead cigar. Jeronne Maymon walked past halfcourt and uttered a soft-spoken expletive, then turned to see the next wave that would come at him.
And it came, another easy basket at the rim for a Florida team that wore down Maymon and his teammates with a combination of defense, desperation and deafening crowd noise.
“We grind our teeth when we play them,” said center Patric Young.
And they know it will be a grind. Because this is one of Florida's biggest rivals in a sport where we don't talk about rivalry games. Tennessee made this one with a series of wins over Billy Donovan. Tennessee basketball is to Florida as Florida football is to Tennessee.
Donovan's two national title teams went 1-3 against Bruce Pearl. His current seniors had lost three in a row to Cuonzo Martin, who has yet to get his team to the NCAA Tournament.
Saturday was a big opportunity for Tennessee to move from just inside the bubble to free and clear of any soapy residue. Instead, Florida played like the team that absolutely had to have this game.
“We're a different team with different parts,” said senior Scottie Wilbekin. “But we didn't want to lose four in a row.”
Maybe this game is evidence of just how good this team is, as if 17-2 and 6-0 in the SEC aren't enough. Because this was Tennessee, a team that has looked impressive at times and combines a scoring machine (Jordan McRae) with a bulky inside game and a deep bench.
So much for that.
Saturday's win doesn't make up for any of the losses in the past to the Vols, but it showed how different this team is. Like Donovan's best teams, these guys understand there is no telling who will be the star of the game, that it's not going to be easy and they relish the opportunity to work hard.
They talked after the game about playing “desperate,” as if this was a game for a championship or to keep a season alive.
“We did a pretty good job of being desperate,” Donovan said. “It's a gift to be desperate.”
Desperate teams are dangerous. They come at you with sharpened teeth and claws and don't back down from physical play. Desperate teams put team before self and dive for loose balls and are willing to play defense like a made basket could be life-threatening.
That may not be what one expects from a team sitting at No. 6 in the country with a bullet. Home game, ESPN. Watch us bomb 3s and slam dunks.
Naw. Those are the sidebars. The bigger the stage for Donovan's Gators, the tougher it defends.
Certainly, defense wasn't entirely responsible for Tennessee making 1-of-19 shots from 3-point land. But it was a major factor. The Florida defenders made every shot difficult and only Jarnell Stokes was able to find any success with 16 points, six of them coming on offensive putbacks.
He was the beast we expected. The rest of the team shot 19.1 percent. Stokes scored five points in the first 8:20 of the second half. The rest of the Volunteers scored as many as your mailman did during that stretch.
“We were getting everything,” Young said. “They were pretty much handing us the ball.”
This was atypical Tennessee, but typical Florida. You want to focus on the NCAA's ridiculous handling of the Chris Walker situation? It's just a blip on the radar for these players. Focus is where complacency goes to die.
These guys have other things to worry about. Like forgetting the past in terms of results, but embracing it in terms of learned lessons. There is still a long way to go, including a trip to Knoxville on Feb. 11.
“We're seniors and it's a little more important to us,” Wilbekin said. “But (this game) is already in the past. They'll be ready for us in Tennessee.”
Still, for one day the Florida fans who were there when Joakim Noah got a tooth knocked out and Dane Bradshaw stole the ball and Tony Harris gave Teddy Dupay the choke sign could relish in a dominating Florida victory.
It only counts for one victory. But don't rivalry wins feel like more?
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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