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Thursday February 20, 2014 Focus on free throws pays off big time for Gators

Patric free throws GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the locker room Wednesday night after second-ranked Florida’s come-from behind 71-66 defeat of Auburn, the subject of free throws was put to Scottie Wilbekin.

The senior point guard had made good on all four of his attempts in the game, including two with 17.5 seconds left to help ice the outcome. As a team, the Gators hit 23 of 28. Senior center Patric Young (left), whose 57.1 percent for the season was a team-low among UF regulars, went 7-for-9 from the line and hit a mega-clutch pair with 19.4 seconds to give the Gators the lead. For good, as it turned out.

Young, it was pointed out to Wilbekin, had made 15 of his last 20.

Wilbekin’s eyes got a little wide. He was impressed.

“That’s pretty good,” Wilbekin said. “He must be learning from me.”

Maybe the Gators are learning from each other.

A month ago, 16 games into the season, UF was making 66.2 percent of its free throws. That ranked 270th in the nation. In six of those 16 games, the Gators had made less than 60 percent. The fact they had two games of more than 80 percent with at least 30 attempts suggested what the team was capable of, but pointed to their drastic inconsistency.

Now, the Gators have not only improved, but they’re doing it each game.

Scottie FT Coach Billy Donovan ordered up more practice time dedicated to free-throw shooting, oftentimes with players breaking up and going to baskets in pairs, with half the team in the men’s gym and the other half heading to the women’s gym, for 20-25 minutes of free throws at the end of practice. One hundred for each guy, with the results written up on a greaseboard for the entire team to see.

That's when Wilbekin made 83 in a row and had a few words about it.

Or when Michael Frazier II made 96 and was upset about it.

Players have also taken it upon themselves to get more shots up, be it by showing up at random times to shoot on their own or staying after practice to do so.

It shows.

Boy, does it show.

Some numbers:

* Over the last 10 games, UF has made 69.8 percent.

* Last five: 75.5 percent.

* Last three: 79.5 percent.

* Last two: 80.4 percent.

Wilbekin gets a big assist here. Upon joining the team five games into the season following a suspension, Wilbekin made just 10 of his first 20 from the line, but has gone 71 of his last 91 since. That’s 82 percent.

He’s 25-of-28 over the last three games. That’s 89.3 percent.

And that's borderline automatic.

Then there’s Young. A career 55.4 from the line coming into the season, Young was shooting at his average for the better part of the season (54.2 through 20 games), with games of 0-for-4 and 2-for-7 along the way. Over the last six games, though, Young has gone 20 of his last 28, which converts to 71.4 percent.

For a big man who gets a lot of 3-point opportunities, that’s significant.

Let’s not forget Will Yeguete, either. The senior forward started the season at a woeful 41.5 from his career. After going 5-for-6 against Auburn, Yeguete is nine of his last 11 over five games and at 64.1 for the season.

Casey FTs at UK Note: Casey Prather (left at Kentucky) certainly warrants mention, given the fact he was at 50 percent for his career entering the season and is now at 67.9. Fact is, though, Prather has been hovering at that average most of the season while leading the team -- by far -- in free-throw attempts with 134 He’s been a huge factor in UF’s ability to close out games.  

These are all really good numbers and certainly indicate practice and repetition. But as Donovan pointed out after Wednesday’s narrow victory, statistics are merely an indication of things that already have happened.

No guarantees for the Gators (24-2, 13-0) in future games, starting Saturday at Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6).

"These guys have spent time [and] we’ve gotten better there, but we’ve got to keep getting better,” Donovan said. “All this stuff is so fragile. One minute you’re looked at like, ‘Hey, we’re the best defensive team in the country,’ and we’re this and this --  and I don’t think we were the best defensive team in the country (against Auburn). But we were a really poor free-throw shooting team and now we’re an unbelievable free-throw shooting team.”

The goal, obviously, is to keep those numbers trending up. The way to do that, is keep the practice shots going up. There's no reason to believe, given recent results, that won't continue happening.

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