Wednesday January 8, 2014Gators Handle South Carolina in SEC Opener, Run Home Winning Streak to 24
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The lead was 13 early on and maybe, just maybe, the Florida Gators dared to think Wednesday night’s Southeastern Conference opener against South Carolina, an opponent with barely a winning record, would turn into a laugher along the lines of last year’s meeting.
Flashback: the Gamecocks scored 10 points in the first half and were drummed by 39.
The 10th-ranked Gators learned quickly, however that the Gamecocks weren’t rolling over this time-- especially when the visitors cut an 18-point lead to eight three times in the second half – but Florida summoned the energy for a 74-58 victory, the team’s fifth straight, before a crowd of 12,147 at the O’Connell Center.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin scored 17 points to lead the Gators (12-2, 1-0) before rolling his right ankle late in the game and being carried off the floor. Wilbekin was walking on his own afterward, but UF coach Billy Donovan said his playmaker’s status would be re-evaluated Thursday.
Patric Young scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while senior forward Casey Prather threw in 13 more. Together, the two combined to go 11-for-12 from the floor and helped UF shoot 57.8 percent for the game, despite a tough night (5-for-19) from the 3-point line.
It was the Gamecocks’ field-goal percentage, though, that caught Donovan’s attention.
South Carolina (7-7, 0-1) may have shot just 43.9 percent for the game, including a woeful 31.6 in the first half, but the Gamecocks made three of their last four shots before halftime, then seven of their first 10 after the break.
Meanwhile, in UF’s last 10 possession of the first half, the Gators scored just six points.
“That’s terrible,” Young said.
And it was brought up on the bench, again in the locker room and remained a topic of conversation while the Gamecocks were hovering around the 8-point margin.
“We got off to such a great start in the game. I mean, we’re up 14-1,” said UF assistant Matt McCall, charged with the advance scout for the game. “So it’s like we decided to take a deep breath or something. Hey guys! It’s the SEC! Keep playing!”
South Carolina did.
“Our young kids were tight and nervous,” said USC coach Frank Martin, whose team lost 75-36 here last year in a game it trailed 33-10 at halftime. “My biggest concern going into this game was that first five or six minutes. Exactly what I was hoping didn’t happen, happened.”
But unlike last year’s squad, this one kept playing; kept coming after the Gators.
The Gamecocks out-rebounded the Gators 28-25, holding UF to just five on the offensive glass. But 21 turnovers were converted into 22 Florida points and helped the home team muddle through an offense that lacked body movement at times and got caught too often staring at USC’s zone rather than ball-faking and carving at it.
Still, the Gators led just 52-42 at the 10-minute mark when Michael Frazier II (8 points, 4 rebounds) nailed a 3-pointer that kicked in a 12-0 run in a little less than three minutes to push the margin back out to 22. Young had a steal and coast-to-coast layup, Wilbekin a 3-pointer, Will Yeguete two free throws and Frazier another shot from the corner.
Just like that, things were cozy again.
“I don’t know what it is, but we have a very, very hard time sustaining intensity,” Donovan said. “We inevitably let teams get back in games and we’re going to have to do something to get that resolved and corrected. I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s starting to become a theme ... and I’m starting to get irritated by it.”
There's plenty of time to work on it, though.
Florida will be back at work Thursday -- Wilbekin’s status for practice is questionable -- and the UF coaches will try to get Donovan’s message across in time for a visit to Arkansas, a team that has won 23 in a row at home and one that smashed the Gators there from the opening tip last season.
“We have to be locked and focused on our goals,” Young said. “And not only winning a game, but helping ourselves get better every day.”