Wiedmer: What Gators do best is win

Wiedmer: What Gators do best is win

March 15th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

ATLANTA - With 10:05 to go in Florida's SEC tournament quarterfinal game against Missouri on Friday afternoon, the nationally top-ranked Gators were only two points in front of the pesky Tigers. Forty-seven seconds later they were up nine, thanks to an inside bucket by Florida senior Will Yeguete, a steal and a 3-pointer by senior Scottie Wilbekin and a second basket in close from senior Patric Young.

Forty-seven seconds. Seven points. Game over, the Gators eventually rolling to a 72-49 victory, their 30th of the year against two defeats.

"When it's a close game, those are big blows," said Mizzou guard Jabari Brown, who has hit nearly 42 percent of his 3-point shots this season but was 0-of-5 from treysville against Florida. "They just play so well in tandem with each other."

This is what Tennessee faces today in its tourney semifinal showdown against the Gators. It faces a team that's won 24 straight games. It faces, in Missouri coach Frank Haith's words, "a great team."

The Volunteers have faced this great team twice previously, with painful results. In perhaps UT's worst performance of the year, the Gators rolled in Gainesville, 67-41. The rematch in Knoxville went better, but Florida still prevailed 67-58.

Now comes a far more important meeting, at least for the Vols. Let the Big Orange upset the SEC champs and any lingering doubt about their NCAA tournament admission is over. Let UT win this one and its chances of capturing its first SEC tourney title since 1979 become no worse than 50-50.

But however much they may want it to happen, or honestly believe it will happen, closing that deal is another matter.

"They're experienced," said Haith, referring to Florida's four senior starters. "They play unselfish basketball."

Here's experience: The game tied at halftime, Missouri headed to its locker room with great emotion, almost every player shouting, "We ain't going nowhere! ...We ain't going nowhere! ... Keep fighting!"

Then there were the Gators, who jogged or walked to their locker room as if exiting a business meeting on office supplies. No smiles, no frowns, no emotions -- poker faces all the way around.

Some would call this disinterest for a tournament that should mean next to nothing for Florida's expected overall No. 1 NCAA seed. Some would call it supreme confidence that having won its last 23 games before this one, Florida had absolutely zero concerns about securing a 24th straight victory.

Either way, it would take another 20 minutes to find out which Gators team had taken the Georgia Dome floor for this one.

"I was disappointed in the first half," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I thought we looked a little bit out of it. But our guys -- especially our older guys -- did a good regrouping in the locker room. We played a much better second half on both ends of the floor."

Backing up his coach, senior forward Casey Prather said, "We came out slow, taking things for granted. We weren't moving the ball the correct way."

And that pretty much continued until just over 10 minutes remained in the game. Then the team many believe will cut down the nets next month in Dallas began to play like it. The lead went from two to nine in 47 seconds. Then to 14 two minutes after that. Then to 21 less than four minutes after that.

"With 11 minutes to go, they're shooting 31 percent, I thought we were grinding it," Haith said. "Then they made some shots, got it going a little bit. ... They did what they do."

Despite leading the league in victory margin (13 ppg) going into the SEC tournament, Donovan said what his own team does best is grind. He pointed to the one-point deficit at home against Auburn with less than a minute to play. And the seven-point deficit at Arkansas with less than four to go. And the seven-point deficit at Kentucky with 11 to go. Beyond that, in half of the Gators' 18 regular-season games, they've been involved in a two-point or tighter game at halftime.

"If you had not laid eyes on us, just seen our record, you might say, 'Geez, they must be blowing everybody out,'" he said. "But for all practical purposes, we were dead in the water against Auburn. We won in overtime at Arkansas. If you've watched our team play, we maybe don't play or look as dominant as our record does."

But the record is 30-2. The record screams of dominance, of the very real possibility that Donovan -- who coached the Gators to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007 -- could win a third in Dallas, which would give him more titles than any active coach save Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, who's already won four.

As Friday's postgame news conference ended, someone asked Billy D what it was like to coach this bunch.

"We've got a group that's pretty cerebral," he said. "I can do a lot of different things with this team because they're pretty bright. They understand our system."

Come 1 p.m. today, we'll find out if Tennessee can become the first team since Dec. 2 to understand how to beat that system.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com