Last-ditch defensive adjustment unlikely savior in Gators’ win over Dawgs

Georgia freshman guard Anthony Edwards looks to shoot over Florida freshman guard Tre Mann during Wednesday's game at Exactech Arena. The Gators won 81-75 after being down by 22 points. [Brad McClenny/The Gainesville Sun]

Their backs against the wall, the Gators resorted to a seldom-used defensive strategy: the 3-2 zone. 

Florida, which typically prefers man-to-man or a 1-3-1 defensive alignment, had seen its man defense carved up for 41 points in the first half by Georgia, resulting in a 15-point deficit at the midpoint. 

Then, after a halftime challenge from coach Mike White and several of the team’s leaders, the Gators came out re-energized and ready to employ a 1-3-1 in the hopes of both cutting off the Dawgs’ passing lanes and creating some transition baskets of their own. 

“I told my team I got them, I’m not going to let them down,” sophomore Keyontae Johnson said. “I knew we were going to come back.”

That still didn’t appear to be the case,as the second half began, and soon UF found itself in a 22-point hole, causing White to call a quick timeout to regroup. 

“They dunked on us in about three seconds, and Scottie (Lewis) fell down, I didn’t even see what happened,” White said. “Obviously they were prepared for it. They saw 1-3-1, we got wide-eyed, and we got dunked on.”

Then came another change — one White admitted was, in a sense, a last-ditch effort.

“We went 3-2 from man-to-man, and it slowed down Anthony Edwards,” Johnson said. “We practiced that, but our coaches basically tell us ‘We go zone when we don’t know how to guard’, so we don’t like going zone.”

But it worked, and soon the Gators (14-8, 6-3 Southeastern Conference) held a 10-point lead after a commanding 37-5 run over the first 10 minutes of the second half. When the 81-75 result stood, it meant the Gators had tied the largest comeback in program history, and marked UF’s second comeback of 20 or more points in the last 34 days. 

As the team was forcing turnovers — and finally getting out in transition — White noticed their demeanor improving.

“The confidence level from first half to second half was totally different,” he said. “I thought our guys did a great job of communicating on the other end away from us.” 

UF’s starting point guard, who turned in a career-high 25 points on 10-for-16 shooting to go along with three assists and four rebounds, felt it, too. 

“During that run, our attitude started changing and we got away from being up when we’re in a lead and being down when they’re on a run,” Andrew Nembhard said. “We’ve got to stop playing the way we’ve been playing so lazy, so casual. It starts with me though.”

Although it didn’t erase Florida’s first-half issues, the monstrous comeback epitomized the team’s potential this season – and possibly verified the notion the Gators are a team to be reckoned with when they compete for 40 minutes on both ends. 

The key, of course, is to avoid having to rally from typically insurmountable deficits – something the Gators have yet to figure out with the regular season in its final month. 

“We just locked in on that and tried to get defensive stops,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want to lose the game, so we showed everybody we had heart and wanted to win. Now we have to keep it going.” 

Up next

UF plays at Ole Miss (11-11, 2-7) starting at 2 p.m. Saturday. ESPN2 will air the game.


  1. This was indeed a great comeback, and I agree that falling in a deep hole must be avoided at all costs. Employing the 3-2 zone should be part of the mix, to keep the opponent off balance. If we play 1-3-1 80% of the time, we become predictable, which is synonymous with beatable. This Gator team that I became disappointed with (as a lifelong fan – I am 64) showed true grit and heart in the 2nd half. Hopefully the fired-up attitude and mentality this team just showed can be carried forward into the START of their next game. GO GATORS!!!

  2. Hey, they didn’t win because of their defense. They allowed 75 points. They won because they scored 81 and that’s because Nembhard scored 25. Pay attention folks. You score 81 points and most of the time you win in college ball. Yeah, maybe getting stops helped their attitude, but it wasn’t attitude that won it. It was Nembhard. Let him score 18-20 or more points and they win almost every game. He has to shoot, a lot!

  3. The biggest issue with this team is that they are young. As I have said before, there are no “program” guys on this team. Nobody who has come up in the program and symbolizes Coach White on the floor. I guess that player could be Nembhard, but even he is only a sophomore.

    The adjustment to college basketball is difficult. The defensive and offensive schemes are much more complicated. Scouting is intense and everything becomes situational. When do you switch? When do you double? When do you help?

    When your team is young you have to put in your defensive schemes one at a time. You can’t build on previous years. I think you will see the 3-2 added but it has probably taken this long for the team to learn the nuances of 1-3-1 and man-to-man. I think the same is true for the offense.

    Ultimately, it comes down to youth. At the same time, whose fault is it that this team is so young and has no experienced leaders who have come up in the program? For his first 3 years, White spent more time building teams than building a program. He is paying for it this year with a inexcusably imbalanced roster. I do feel as though he is getting it on track and next year the roster should be better balanced and he will have some talented juniors who have spent 3+ off-seasons in the program.

    My biggest gripe with White is the way he bashes his players toughness, desire and hustle in the post game. He has done this for years. He recruited these guys. If he wants hustle, recruit a “want to” guy. If he wants toughness and he isn’t getting it, fire the strength coach. If you want leaders, get a guy to stick around in your program for more than 2 years.

    The reason Donovan had success in Year 3,4 & 5 is he recruited guys like Major Parker and Brent Wright. Then he had Haslem and Dupay. By the time Donovan was in his 5th season, Parker and Wright were seniors and Haslem and Dupay were juniors. Imagine a sophomore or freshman not working hard in practice or the weight room. Those guys were not having it.