Veteran group grinds out another tight game
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 6:03 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 8:36 p.m.
ATLANTA — Billy Donovan had a battle plan for what he knew was going to be a war in the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
But sometimes, the best plans have to be scrapped and tossed aside like an old box score.
Playing for the second time in two days for the first time this season, Donovan knew he would need his bench. He wanted to get more minutes than usual from Chris Walker. He wanted a heavy dose of Kasey Hill.
But after trailing by as many as 10 points in the first half and seeing Walker get shoved around and Hill play like a freshman. Donovan turned to Team Grind in the second half.
“We shortened our bench a little bit,” Donovan said. “We played with a veteran group out there (in the second half).”
The result was a defense that allowed only 14 second-half points and allowed Florida to advance to today's SEC tournament final against Kentucky.
Some wins are flashy and highlight-worthy. But what really good teams can do when it's not easy is to embrace a game that's ugly and difficult.
Donovan hasn't always had teams which can do that. A lot of coaches don't.
But this group? The harder the better.
“This group's got a resiliency, a competitiveness to them,” Donovan said. “They battle. They fight. We're not perfect. We have our flaws like any other team. With these guys, most of the time, I feel like when they walk off the court, I never feel like, 'Wow, you know, these guys really didn't get after it and compete and really play to the level intensity-wise that we needed to.
“I think their intentions are always in a good place.”
They knew this was going to be a battle. They knew the two wins over Tennessee in the regular season were old news. They knew Jarnell Stokes was going to be a load underneath and that Tennessee's long guards were going to make it difficult on the 3-point shooters.
But on a day when they only made four from beyond the arc and Michael Frazier II could only get two long ones off the entire game, they also knew how to win.
“It was a battle,” said senior center Patric Young. “We just had to go out there and be fearless.”
There was plenty to fear. The Vols hadn't trailed in their last five games and were playing at a high level defensively. They knew that a win over the nation's No. 1 team would silence any doubters about their NCAA-worthiness.
And they took it to Florida. The Gators hadn't trailed by double digits since Wisconsin in November. This was unfamiliar territory to this team. Then again, it wasn't.
They'd been in tight games before.
“Our No. 1 key is not to panic,” Young said.
It's not in this team's DNA.
“I feel like we've been in every kind of situation,” senior guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
And so, at halftime, he told his teammates exactly that.
“We've trailed at the half before. We've been in games where every possession is crucial. We know what it takes to win.
“As long as we come out and play like we know we can, then we'll be fine,” he said.
They get it. They get that every game is different, that adjustments have to be made. They get that focus is everything.
“We just all started connecting finally,” Young said.
Not that it was easy by any stretch of the imagination.
And it will be even more difficult today.
Kentucky fans have turned the city into Catlanta again. The Wildcats are playing their best basketball since that blowout loss in Gainesville. In their eyes, Florida's 20-0 SEC record is a target more than an achievement.
The good news for Florida today is that the Gators haven't come close to playing a complete game. They played a great 10-minute spurt against Missouri on Friday and had their moments against Tennessee, especially when the game was on the line.
It'll take 40 minutes today.
But you don't win trophies and cut down nets because it's easy.
You do those things because you like it when it's not.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.