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Sunday December 1, 2013Better to Be Lucky Than Good, But Gators Need to Improve ... Starting at UConn

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

STORRS, Conn. -- Casey Prather was under the basket Friday night and watched the ball hone in on the rim like a guided missile.

“I thought it was in,” Prather said.

Ask anyone on the Florida bench or in the O’Connell Center that night. The half-court heave from Seminoles guard Ian Miller -- who caught the ball with 1.3 seconds to play, spun to his right and launched the prayer toward the hoop as the final horn sounded -- looked dead-solid perfect.

Back of the rim. A sold-out sigh of relief from the crowd. UF wins 67-66.

So when Florida coach Billy Donovan gathered with his team Saturday morning to prepare the 15th-ranked Gators (6-1) for the quick turnaround at unbeaten and 13th-ranked Connecticut (7-0), he asked them a question.

What if that shot goes in?

“I’ll tell you what,” Donovan said. “We’re all in the jar. They’re talking about Florida losing another close game. Gators blew a lead again. Blah, blah, blah.”

But it didn’t go in. Instead, Florida won its first game on a last-second shot -- Dorian Finney-Smith’s free throw at 1.3 seconds was the difference -- since Chandler Parsons beat South Carolina at the horn on Jan. 23, 2010.

But it was just the second win for the Gators in their last eight games decided by three points or less, dating to the 2010-11 season when Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete were wide-eyed freshman who mostly watched from the bench as Butler staged that miracle comeback to win in overtime in the Elite Eight.

Each of those players were battle-tested veterans last season when UF frittered away big second-half leads and lost by one at Arizona, by three at Missouri, four at Kentucky and three in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game at Nashville.

So everyone felt pretty good about Friday.

“It told us that if we keep fighting we can persevere and overcome adversity,” Prather said.
And no.

“Trust me,” Donovan said. “We don’t have anything figured out.”

UF did some good things at the end, starting with Finney-Smith free throw. The defense on the final frantic play -- denying FSU from throwing the pass deep into their halfcourt -- was as close to perfect as could be. Miller was 55 feet from the basket when he let the shot fly.

It almost went in. And therein lies the game’s lesson.

“We let luck back into the game,” Donovan said.

The Gators let a 9-point lead dissolve in the final six-plus minutes by fouling too much (FSU went 10-for-10 from the free-throw line in the last four minutes), turning the ball over a couple times and missing some free throws.

They managed to close the game out, though -- Finney-Smith’s free throw came after a terrific effort play to grab an offensive rebound -- but the UF staff hopes the lessons of the FSU game can make an impact on future games, despite the fact the Gators’ mistakes did not come back to bite them with the final outcome.

Like those frustrating defeats of last season.

On Sunday he used the insanity of the Auburn-Alabama football game from the night before to illustrate his point. Everyone in America was talking about Auburn’s 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown on the final play.

“Everyone can dissect what happened on that play, but there were a lot of plays that led to that situation,” Donovan said. “For us, yes, that win may have given us some confidence, but it could have gone either way. What if we had gone to overtime and lost? So, as a coach, you have to look at the whole big picture. Why were we in that situation?”

Free throws (UF’s 62.5 percent to FSU’s 87). Shooting (just 36.4 percent from the floor and no field goals in the last 3 minutes). Shot selection (not the best at times, especially in traffic against a gigantic interior team).

But in the end, the breaks went UF’s way. At home.

Facing the Huskies in Gampel Pavilion, one of the toughest environments in the country and a program used to winning big games, won’t be nearly as forgiving.

“We lost some tough games last year, but this is a different year and a different team,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said. “Bottom line, Coach is right, when you allow luck to come into play, everything’s out of your hands. This time, we were lucky.”

Next time, the Gators hope to be in control.

No. 15 Florida at No. 13 Connecticut  

When: Monday, 7 p.m.
Where: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs, Conn.
Records: Florida (6-10); UConn (7-0)
TV: ESPN2 (w/Bob Wischusen, Seth Greenberg and Andy Katz) 
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates)
Game notes: Florida notes; UConn notes


History: UF and UConn will play for just the second time. The lone previous meeting came in the 1994 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 round at Miami, where Huskies All-America forward and Big East Player of the Year Donyell Marshall missed two free throws in a tie game with three seconds to go in regulation. The Gators won 69-60 in overtime and advanced to their first Elite Eight in school history, and eventually to the Final Four.

Pre-game storyline: Florida hits the second leg of heavyweight four-game paddle wheel. After holding on to beat Florida State 67-66 Friday night, the Gators now face the unbeaten Huskies on their home floor. UF’s next game will be home Dec. 10 against currently No. 2-ranked Kansas, followed by a Dec. 17 date against Memphis, also ranked, in the Jimmy V Class at Madison Square Garden.

The players: Point guard Scottie Wilbekin (9.5 ppg) now has two games under his belt since returning from his suspension to start the season. He’s been pretty good with the ball (15 assists, just 4 turnovers), but his 2-for-12 shooting effort from the floor against FSU included some forced shots in penetration against some very big Seminoles. He’s been told to look for the drive-and-dish extra pass. He needs to hit his free throws too. Just 3-for-7 to start. ... Forward Casey Prather’s senior season could not have gotten off to a better start. The 6-6, 212-pounder leads the team in scoring at 19.1 points per game (on a team-best 64-percent shooting) to go with 5.7 rebounds. Prather was right on those numbers (19 and 4) against FSU. ... Sophomore backup forward Dorian Finney-Smith has yet to find his touch (36.2 percent from the floor, 31.3 from 3-point range), but his 43 rebounds are more than any Gator, despite missing the first two games of the season.

The opponent: UConn was one of the few teams that remained from the defunct Big East leftovers that were folded into the American Athletic Conference. The Huskies have won all four of their home games by double-digits, but neutral-site wins over Boston College (72-70), Indiana (59-58) and Maryland (78-77) were by a combined four points. ... UConn, coached by former star alum Kevin Ollie, plays a mostly 3-guard rotation, led by 6-1 senior Shabazz Napier (15 ppg, 7.7 rpg), a player of the year candidate in the league. The other two guards are 6-0 Ryan Boatright (11.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and 6-6 Omar Calhoun (9.4 ppg). The frontcourt player to watch is DeAndre Daniels (13.4, 4.3 rpg), a 6-9 “stretch 4” that can shoot the 3. ... The Huskies are making 49.2 percent of their field goals and 44.7 percent of their 3s. ... Defensively, UConn is allowing opponents just 36 percent from the floor. That ranks 10th in the nation.

Key numbers: 

* .714 - Donovan’s winning percentage against teams from the new AAC, a list that includes South Florida, Central Florida, Rutgers, Temple and Louisville.

* 1 - Turnovers committed by junior walk-on forward Jake Kurtz in 138 minutes of court time. That averages out to less than a third of a turnover per game. Kurtz has already played more minutes this season than the previous two combined.

* 4 - Games freshman point guard Kasey Hill will have missed after Monday due an ankle sprain suffered Nov. 18 against Southern. Hill has yet to practice, but is shooting  some and has gone through individual instruction sessions. The Gators are hoping he could be ready for the Kansas game. 

* 5 - 3-pointers by UF sophomore guard Michael Frazier in each of the last two games. He went a combined 10-for-14 in wins over Jacksonville and FSU to push his season’s percentage to 53.7.

* 68.2 - 3-point shooting percentage for UConn reserve forward Niels Giffy, who’s hopped off the bench to make 15 of 22 from the arc this season.

Watch for it: The Gators better bring their transition defense to Gampel, especially with those quick Husky guards -- Napier and Boatright -- that prefer ball pressure to pressing, but want to push the basketball.


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