Sunday November 18, 2012Gators Use Strong Second Half to Pull Away from Middle Tennessee State
Photo courtesy of US Presswire
Photo courtesy of US Presswire
TAMPA, Fla. -- In preparing last week for a big ESPN game against nationally ranked Big Ten power Wisconsin, the Florida Gators were told to expect a 40-minute mugging.
That game, however, never materialized in a relatively easy win over the Badgers.
Instead, it came Sunday against Middle Tennessee State.
"Sometimes, a game just gets dirty -- and by that I mean just, really, really physical," UF junior forward Will Yeguete said. "When that happens, we have to get dirty, too."
It took about a half to figure out how to take the fight to the Sun Belt Conference power Blue Raiders, but an early blitz in the second half -- and a flurry of MTSU fouls -- gave the 10th-ranked Gators room to breath and momentum to pull away for a 66-45 win in front of 7,161 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Yeguete, making his third start at the small forward spot, was in the center of the scrum, scoring 11 points and grabbing a team-high 13 rebounds, while senior guard Kenny Boynton scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half, including his team's last 13 of the game.
"This was the most physical team I've played against in a long time," said Boynton, who Sunday passed Dwayne Schintzius (1,624 points from 1986-90) to become No. 6 on UF's all-time scoring list with 1,641 points. "Whether slapping at the ball or coming after us on rebounds, they were aggressive on defense."
Junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, suspended for the first three games for violating team rules, made his season debut off the bench, finishing with eight points, three rebounds and three assists in 23 minutes for the Gators (3-0).
"It felt weird being out there at first, but once I got back into the flow of things in the second half everything seemed a lot more natural," said Wilbekin, who actually liked the rougher tone of the game. "It kind of dragged me into it. I didn't have an option. I had to be into the game, focused and intense the whole time."
That's how the Blue Raiders (2-1) came to town -- and it worked for a good half. Middle Tennessee, which returned 11 players from a team that won 27 games last season and beat the likes of UCLA, Ole Miss and Tennessee, trailed just 26-23 at intermission after holding UF to just 39.3 percent from the floor just four days after the Gators shredded Wisconsin for nearly 62 percent shooting.
"It was a grind-it game," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
The officials were far more active with the whistles in the second half, as the Gators were in the one-and-one bonus with just under 14 minutes to go in the game after inching to a nine-point lead -- its biggest of the game -- on a driving 3-point play from Boynton.
"I just thought our flow offensively was disrupted by the game and the amount of contact and how physical it was," Donovan said. "And then I thought in the second half, we really made a huge emphasis of saying, 'If they're going to put that pressure out there [on the perimeter], then we're left playing one-on-one in the post,' and we established that very early."
The Gators took advantage of their inside advantage, but paid for it along the way.
"When I say 'dirty,' not saying they're a dirty team; just saying how the game became so scrappy," Yeguete said. "They're a scrappy team. They play 1-3-1 [zone] most of the game. They fight for loose balls and long rebounds and 50-50 plays. They did it, so we just had to do it and play harder than they did."
The Blue Raiders got their money's worth, finishing with eight more fouls (24) than field goals (16). The Gators may have run away with it a little sooner had they shot free throws better (58.6 percent), particularly Yeguete and center Patric Young (9 points, 2 rebounds), who combined to go 7-for-17 from the line.
Then came the second half, with Florida getting some better looks and finding ways to get to the rim on the way to shooting 58.8 percent after the break and limiting MTSU to just 26.9 percent.
The score was 56-43 with under four minutes to go when Boynton hit a pair of free throws to start his 13-point, and a minute later bombed a 3-pointer from the top of the key at about 26 feet.
He made another one from about 23 feet about a minute later.
"I kind of felt it late," he said.
That was well after the Gators felt the slaps and pokes and grabs of the Blue Raiders early on, but with plenty of time to spare, as it turned out.
"I like these kinds of games. Actually, I love these kinds of games," Yeguete said. "In the long run, they'll make us harder and tougher."