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Saturday February 8, 2014Offense Rescues Defense in Win Over Alabama

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ball movement has been a prominent subject with the Florida Gators this season. Oftentimes, the offensive was stagnated when the ball was held too long, guys have dribbled too much and the result has been a team in the bottom half of the Southeastern Conference in assists at just 12.7 points per game.

So after the third-ranked Gators posted their most assists of the season -- the most in 33 games, in fact -- senior forward Will Yeguete was asked about the team’s improvement on offense and specifically about those 22 assists in a hard-fought 78-69 win Saturday at the sold-out O’Connell Center.

“I didn’t even know about that,” Yeguete said.

Of course, he didn’t. That’s because it never came up in Coach Billy Donovan’s post-game chat, not after the Gators surrendered season-worsts of 55-percent shooting from the field and 54.5 from the 3-point line.

“No, it was not a good defensive performance,” senior center Patric Young said. “We gave up too many easy baskets and let them score too many points. They’re a good team and did a lot of things we couldn’t handle at times, but thankfully we were able to pick it up in the second half.”

For Florida (21-2, 10-0), this was a day of offense picking up a sub-standard effort on the other end of the floor. UF placed all five starters in double-figures, led by senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin’s 16 points and senior forward Casey Prather’s 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting and six rebounds.

The Gators hit a blistering 62 percent for the game and erased an early second-half deficit with some timely 3-point shots, using bursts of 17-3 and 8-2 to open up 15-point lead with eight minutes to go, then staving off the stubborn Crimson Tide and red-hot point guard Trevor Releford.

That UF hit 19 of its first 28 shots and only led by six after five minutes of the second half speaks to what was happening -- or wasn’t -- on defense.

And that’s where Donovan chose to focus.

“Alabama did a good job of putting us in some binds where we had to guard a lot of straight-line drives, hard drives,” Donovan said. “We were late reacting, we didn’t handle a lot of their drives and we fouled too much.”

Florida’s defensive efficiency rating (or points per possession) was a woeful 1.24 in the first half after the Tide (9-14, 3-6) hit 61 percent of its field goals and 71.4 of its 3-point shots (5 of 7). That DER was well over UF’s goal of .90 per possession and didn’t get much better after halftime, even though the Gators clamped down on Bama’s open shots from distance.

Releford poured in a game-high 25 points to go with four assists and four steals. He scored 16 before halftime, but was limited to just one field in the second, though like several teammates he managed to find his way to free-throw line and bunch to keep the Tide within reach.

“We let him get open for some 3s, and that’s partly on us,” Wilbekin said. “But he’s a good player and if you give him an inch he’s going to take advantage of it.”

After going down by 10 after barely three minutes to start the game, Alabama not only clawed back into it, but took a seven-point lead, at 28-21, with just under six minutes to go in the first half. The Gators closed the period well, with Yeguete (12 points in the first half on 6-for-7 shooting) scoring six straight for his team in the final 2:06 to tie things at 36 heading into the locker room.

A Releford 3-pointer, his lone field goal after the break, put Alabama up 41-39 at the 18:45 mark. That was the Tide’s last lead.

Young’s old-fashioned 3-point play, a run-out layup from Prather and 3-pointers from Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II (14 points) accounted for 11 straight over a three-minute span that gave the Gators control of the game. All the points either came off Tide turnovers or missed shots that bounced out and began scramble plays up the floor.

The way the Gators like it.

“Early in the second half, they were able to get out in transition because we were struggling offensively,” Tide coach Anthony Grant said. “They’re at their best when they’re in a transition.”

That second-half spurt, though, was one of the few times in the game that Bama’s offense did, indeed, struggle.

Good thing, too. The Gators needed it.

They also needed those 22 assists; not that anyone was talking about them.

“Coach D is not going to tell us about that,” Yeguete said. “As a coach, he wants us to see what we did wrong and get better from that. I think this game can help us learn. It better. Other teams are going to watch this film and see how we broke down and they're going to run the same stuff.”


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