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Saturday January 11, 2014HOG HEAVEN! Wilbekin, Finney-Smith Lead Gators to Wild Comeback at Arkansas

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- They went into the game undermanned, but in no way overwhelmed.

Make no mistake, the deck was stacked Saturday against the Florida Gators at Bud Walton Arena, what with leading scorer Casey Prather’s knee injury, point guard Scottie Wilbekin coming off an ankle sprain, center Patric Young talking tendinitis again and the Arkansas Razorbacks boasting the nation’s second-longest home winning streak.

But before his team ever got on the plane, UF coach Billy Donovan made it clear that no excuses were going to be tolerated. Not injuries, not venues, not even early wake-up calls and tip-off times.

And certainly not a pressure-packed, end-of-game situation, the likes of which the Gators hadn’t handled well in the past.

“Not this year,” Wilbekin snapped. "You can't say that this year."

No, you can’t. Not after Wilbekin came off the bench and banked in an 8-foot jump shot with two seconds left to tie the game in regulation, then scored nine of his 18 points in overtime to forge the 10th-ranked Gators to a pulsating 84-82 comeback victory in front of a shellshocked Razorbacks sell-out crowd of 18,040.

The win was the sixth straight for Florida (13-2, 2-0) and snapped a 25-game run of home wins for the Hogs (11-4, 0-2), a mark tied for the second-longest such streak in the nation.

Sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith, making his second start of the season, posted season-highs of 22 points and 15 rebounds. He was 7-for-15 from the floor and 3-for-6 from 3-point range to go with relentless work on the glass in starting the game in place of Young. And speaking of Young, he came off the bench -- like Wilbekin -- and sparked the Gators with 10 points and eight rebounds (all but one board after halftime) in a game that made a loud statement.

The folks who heard it best were those in the UF locker room.

A very noisy and happy one.

“We didn’t quit, we didn’t sulk. We stayed together and attacked,” Finney-Smith said. “Coach D told us to go out and play with confidence. Play for each each other. Stay aggressive. They made a couple of runs, but so did we. We battled and that says a lot about our team.”

Especially with Prather (and his team-best 17 points per game) on the bench in sweats.

“I’m so proud of them,” Prather said. “We have a team that sticks together and keeps on fighting.”

Arkansas had that look, too. Just couldn't finish.

"This one hurts," Hogs coach Mike Anderson said. "Why? Because I thought we played well enough [to win]."

The Razorbacks led by seven late in the first half, but the Gators managed to cobble together some points and stops to close within two at intermission. After that, the score bounced back and forth -- all told, there were 13 ties and seven lead changes -- until the Hogs looked to have the edge late.

Forward Coty Clarke tallied 16 points and 14 rebounds, with six on the offensive end, where the Razorbacks smashed UF for 20 return rebounds and 23 second-chance points. They also turned 17 Florida turnovers into 23 points.

Yet Arkansas was up just five, 64-59, when the horn sounded for a media timeout at 3:07 to go.

“Our guys hung in there pretty good,” Donovan said. “It was a two-possession game. We were able to give ourselves a chance.”

Freshman point guard Kasey Hill (6 points, 3 rebounds, 5 assists, but 5 turnovers) made a crazy spinning, reverse layup in traffic to cut the lead to three, and after an Arkansas turnover, guard Michael Frazier (15 points, 4-for-8 from arc) nailed a 3-pointer to tie the game with 1:52 left.

Rashad Madden, who led all scorers with 23 points, drove for a layup that pushed the Hogs in front 66-64 with 1:34 to go. The Gators missed two shots on their end, but got a stop on Arkansas’ ensuing possession, only to have Hill called for traveling in the lane with 18 seconds to go and a chance to tie the game.

One second later, Wilbekin fouled Alandise Harris in the backcourt and sent the junior forward to the line for a one-and-one.

He missed. Frazier rebounded.

The ensuing play called for Finney-Smith to set a screen for Wilbekin, then spin off and away from the lane and perhaps get in place for a jumper. Wilbekin looked Finney-Smith’s way, but he wasn’t open.

“I thought about taking a 3, but Coach would have been mad at me,” Wilbekin said.

Instead, he kept the ball, took Madden down the right side of the lane and rose up for a shot. Forward Bobby Portis, all 6-foot-10 of him, challenged the play, but Wilbekin put it high enough and soft enough off the glass to carom in with two seconds to go.

“Sometimes, you have to have a player make a tough shot,” Donovan said. “You can’t always run something and get an open look.” 

In overtime, the Gators silenced the house by inching to an eight-point lead -- Finney-Smith sank a huge 3-pointer -- and making 10 of 14 free throws to keep the Hogs at bay.

Arkansas actually trailed just three, with under 10 seconds to go, when Harris curiously opted to drive to the rim and take a layup, rather than look for a 3-pointer to tie the game. The ball spun out.

Wilbekin’s rebound and two free throws made a Hogs' oh-by-the-way 3-pointer at the buzzer moot, giving Florida its sixth win in eight games decided by single-digits. Last season, the Gators were 0-6 in single-digit games.

“Think about it, all week long, we were dealing with things. No Casey. Scottie’s ankle. Pat and Frazier can’t practice,” said assistant coach John Pelphrey, who was charged with the advance scout for the game. “Well, here we are in the game and again we’re dealing with a bunch of things, whether it’s being down seven, rebounding, foul trouble, turnovers. We kept playing. That because Coach Donovan had these guys with the right mentality and in the right frame of mind coming in here.”

Nothing like a big road win to generate belief and confidence. Actually, talk to the Gators and they’ll say those traits were already there.

They just got stronger Saturday.

“We’ve learned what it takes to lose these games, so now we’re doing things to win them,” Young said. “It takes coming up with rebounds and loose balls, getting guys open shots, unselfishness, and a fighting-through-things mindset. It all helps you [to] just be ready, no matter what, for the next moment.”

And the happy moments afterward? Yeah, they’re learning about those, too.

 

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