Guards help Gators to another 20-win season
Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 11:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 at 1:19 a.m.
The hoopla surrounding Florida freshman forward Chris Walker’s debut created a frenzied atmosphere in the O’Connell Center.
But in the end, UF’s backcourt stole the show in its 68-58 win over Missouri before 12,123 at the O’Connell Center. After struggling against Missouri’s mix of zone defenses in the first half, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II stepped up in time to keep the Gators unbeaten in Southeastern Conference play.
Wilbekin finished with a team-high 19 points, while Frazier scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half on four 3-pointers.
The Gators (20-2, 9-0 SEC) won their 14th straight, extended their school-record win streak to 28 games and notched their 16th straight 20-win season under head coach Billy Donovan.
“It was a struggle all the way through,” Donovan said. “Nothing was easy for us. I didn’t think that we played very well at all offensively in the first half. We played much better in the second half.”
Senior center Patric Young added 13 points and six rebounds for Florida. Florida looked to him inside more in the second half in an effort to find holes in Missouri’s zone.
“We know as the top team in the SEC, we’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” Young said. “We don’t want to have any letdowns. We want to bring our A-game every night.”
Walker wound up with four points, two rebounds and two blocked shots for the Gators in seven minutes off the bench. The 6-foot-10 forward from Bonifay displayed his athleticism, scoring both of his baskets late in the first half on alley-oop dunks from freshman point guard Kasey Hill.
“I’ve known Kasey since ninth grade,” Walker said. “We played AAU together. I just looked in his eyes. It brought back flashbacks.”
But with the game tight, Walker played just one minute in the second half. Instead, Florida turned to Young, Frazier and Wilbekin to break away from Missouri in the final 20 minutes.
With the score tied at 45, Frazier hit back-to-back 3-pointers, pumping his fist after the second one extended UF’s lead to 51-45. Frazier’s fourth 3-pointer of the second half put Florida up 54-48. From there, the Gators maintained their lead for the rest of the game.
Frazier went 4 of 7 from 3-point range in the second half after going 0 of 4 from beyond the arc in the first half.
“I give him credit for coming back with some confidence in the second half to make some shots and give us the lead,” Donovan said.
Wilbekin, who had made 86 straight free throws in Monday’s practice, made 7 of 8 in the final 2:23 to seal the win. The 6-foot-2 Gainesville native had four assists and went 13 of 16 from the free-throw line.
“I want to get to the free-throw line and was able to make them,” Wilbekin said. “Anytime you get free points, it’s good.”
As a team, Florida shot 72.7 percent from the free-throw line, above its season average of 65.6 percent.
“Our guys overall were a little bit better there than we have been in some of our previous games,” Donovan said.
Junior guard Jabari Brown led Missouri (16-6, 4-5 SEC) with 15 points, with point guard Jordan Clarkson adding 14 points. But for the most part, Florida kept Missouri’s high-scoring backcourt in check.
For the second straight game, Florida struggled from the perimeter in the first half. The Gators missed their first six 3-point attempts and finished 1 of 11 from 3-point range, unable to shoot over Missouri’s mix of zone defenses. In its previous game against Texas A&M, Florida went 1 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half.
Florida trailed for most of the first half due to its early shooting struggles and inability to move the ball. The Gators finished with just five first-half assists, compared to six turnovers.
“In the first half, we moved the ball around the perimeter with no purpose,” Donovan said.
Missouri handled Florida’s press effectively in the first half, though the
Gators were still able to generate 10 first-half points off turnovers. Donovan stuck with the press throughout the game.
“What I did not want to have happen in the second half was them just to walk the ball up the floor, those guys stay somewhat fresh, there’s no pressure against them, they are playing in a comfort zone,” Donovan said. “So even though we didn’t force a lot of turnovers … we at least made them have to work.”
Late in the first half, an Earnest Ross 3-pointer put the Tigers ahead 23-18, but Florida responded with a 7-2 run. Walker checked back in at the 2:25 mark and scored his first career basket on an alley-oop pass from Hill. A second alley-oop from Hill to Walker with 4.3 seconds left in the first half tied the score at 25. But before the first-half buzzer, Brown was able to get free in transition and drain a 24-footer to put Missouri up 28-25.
In the first half, Missouri shot 43.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3-point range (4 of 8). Florida shot just 39.1 percent from the field in the half.
It was the first time Florida trailed at halftime since being behind 36-35 Jan. 11 at Arkansas.
But in the second half, Florida made adjustments.
“I told our guys at halftime when we were coming out that we’ve been in this situation before and we’ve won almost every one of them,” Wilbekin said. “This is where we shine. This is where we play our best, in the close, tough games.”