First-ranked Florida flexes muscles vs. LSU
Published: Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 8:09 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 12:08 a.m.
It seemed like a game that could be a streak-buster, an extremely talented LSU team needing a quality win to get back on the bubble against a Florida team that had been leaking style points.
The Gators had played like an emotionally weary team over a stretch of three games in seven days. UF had won all three, but you wondered if these guys were still chasing history, still striving to be great.
The wins had come by a total of 12 points, and Florida looked far from the best team in the country. But still the ranking came, and the noise got louder.
And then the Gators won a share of the SEC and it got louder. And then Kentucky lost and it got louder. And by the time they took the court Saturday against LSU, it was deafening.
“How much louder can it get?” Billy Donovan asked.
It’s only going to get louder because on the first day of March, Donovan’s team loosened up and blew a good team right out of the building.
The nation saw just how good this team can be when it can use earmuffs to block out the noise and remember what it’s trying to accomplish.
“I’ve seen teams and players lose their identity,” Donovan said. “You lose who you are.”
This team never got to that point, but it was closing in on it. After the doubleheader wins at Tennessee and Kentucky, Florida had looked like a team that was protecting its chips instead of doubling down.
The Gators were playing tight. They were still playing well enough to win, but not well enough.
“It has been tough mentally,” Dorian Finney-Smith said. “But it helped us.”
On Saturday, they let go. They turned a team with some extraordinary players into an ordinary team. They defended so well that the game was a laugher by halftime. Johnny O’Bryant III scored the quietest 18 points of the year.
And Florida didn’t have to cut the nets down after the game because they shot them off the rims.
“We shoot like that, we can’t lose,” Scottie Wilbekin said.
Finney-Smith has suddenly found his shot, making 10 of his last 17 3-pointers. Casey Prather looked like the Casey Prather we saw earlier in the year before his injuries. Kasey Hill returned and led the team in assists. And there was a Chris Walker sighting.
Walker had six rebounds and a block. Some of it was him. Some of it was LSU.
This is what Florida can do to a team that seems overwhelmed by defense and crowd noise. The Gators won by 18, and it could have been much worse.
Here’s all you need to know about LSU on Saturday — Florida scored 34 points in the paint and only went to the free-throw line seven times.
But this isn’t to downgrade an LSU team that hasn’t played up to its talent level. It’s to praise a Florida team that had far exceeded its. There are teams that aren’t equal to the sum of their parts, and then there is Florida.
And on Saturday, with enough distractions to fill their heads with all of the wrong things, the Gators locked in and locked down LSU.
Forget that the league had been captured and then secured.
“I was sitting on my couch when Kentucky lost,” Wilbekin said. “I didn’t feel like I did anything.”
That’s the thing. Florida played like a mature team against LSU. Instead of trying to protect what they have accomplished, they ignored it.
“Our guys are mature enough, and they’re pretty good at listening to what you’re saying,” Donovan said. “With everything that was going on, what did that have to do with us? We needed to understand how we were playing.
“Everything may look rosy from the outside, but it’s not.”
So they turned in what was probably their best performance of the year. They went back to chasing greatness.
And it’s still out there. A few weeks back, I cautioned everyone not to peek ahead and think that this team might go unbeaten in the SEC.
Go ahead and peek.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.