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