On UF basketball: A matter of focus until end

Published: Tuesday, January 3, 2017 at 10:48 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 3, 2017 at 10:48 p.m.

It was one of those murmurs that was both quiet and loud, a grumbling that was part grouchiness and part disbelief. This game was over, wasn’t it? What’s going on?

For 36 minutes, Florida had played inspired defense, making everything difficult for an Ole Miss team that came into Tuesday night’s game averaging 80.7 points against a decent schedule.

But it was almost as if Florida turned off its defense at the same time the Rebels plugged in their offense.

Suddenly, an 18-point game became a six-point game and this team that Gator fans have learned to love was in danger of a classic meltdown.

Fortunately for UF, it didn’t get any more dangerous.

Fortunately for the Gators, they were able to close out another win, this one 70-63.

Fortunately for Florida, that late defensive lapses didn’t ruin what was a smothering night in the new O-Dome.

Which is why -- at one point in his news conference Tuesday night -- Florida coach Mike White said this:

“I hate for it all to be negative.”

The last four minutes were not quite like “Signs” or “The Devil’s Advocate”, a couple of good movies ruined by their finishes. White was able to sleep last night because Florida won its 11th game of the year and went to 2-0 in SEC play.

But this game should never have been in doubt. That’s how well Florida played defensively for most of the game and how poorly it played at the end.

“We lost focus in the last few minutes and stopped playing defense,” said guard Kasey Hill.

Still, they held on.

They just shouldn’t have had to.

“It’s better to learn from a win than a loss,” said Canyon Berry, who came off the bench and scored 20 points.

It would be easy to look at the fact that Ole Miss scored twice as many points in the second half as the first and see this as another second-half defensive collapse for UF.

But Florida’s defensive clinic continued deep into the second half of the game. With fewer than four minutes to play, Florida had given up only 47 points.

White, who has a deep affection for the KenPom website and its metrics, was probably calculating in his head the improvement his defense was going to make in the all important defensive efficiency rating.

UF came into the game ranked 12th in the country.

“We’re probably going to drop,” White said. “We’ve shown what we’re capable of. We’ve shown signs.”

Most of the game was one big sign that said “Wrong Way” for the visiting Rebels. Florida made it extremely difficult for the Rebels to get inside the 3-point line, let alone score points.

Ole Miss’ best scoring opportunities came when Florida took bad shots that led to disorganized defense on the other end. The Gators, taking a cue from the football win the day before, were stifling with an athletic defense.

“We tried to come out of the gate and make them work for their baskets,” said Devin Robinson. “Then we let it go.”

In the last three-plus minutes, the Rebels looked faster than they had all night and Florida looked uncomfortable on both ends.

“We got desperate and played desperate,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy. “We need to play desperate for 40 minutes.”

And as often happens when one team gets it going, the other team starts making mistakes and missing free throws and the murmurs turn to full-fledged groans.

Finally, Chris Chiozza made a free throw and it was a three-possession game and Florida fans could finally exhale.

This will be a series of teaching moments for White. On the one hand, here’s how well you can play defense, guys. On the other hand, here’s how poorly you can play when you don’t focus.

“Focus is a word we’ve used as much as any in the last few months,” White said.

Of course, you could just focus on the fact that this team is undefeated at 2-0 in its new arena.

After all, I’d hate for it to all be negative.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at pat.dooley@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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