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Friday March 14, 2014Defense, Hailstorm of 3s Surge Gators into SEC Semifinals

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

ATLANTA -- The scoreboard showed Florida and Missouri tied at halftime of their Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal Friday. Those in the Georgia Dome -- not to mention the TV-watching Gator Nation -- may have been somewhat surprised at UF’s sluggish first period, but they probably shouldn’t have been.

Nine times in league play this season, UF played tight games to the break; once leading by two, once up one; three times tied and three more trailing.

And all nine times Florida went on to win.

Make it 10.

Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, five days into his reign as SEC Player of Year, keyed a UF defensive second-half surge and 3-point bombardment that frustrated and flattened Mizzou 72-49 for the team's 24th straight win before a matinee dome crowd of 15,273.

Wilbekin was a deadly 5-for-6 shooting from deep and scored 15 points, as did sophomore off-guard Michael Frazier, as the two combined to nail 10 of 12 shots from deep and keyed yet another long-distance shooting clinic for the nation’s No. 1-ranked team. It was UF's defense, though, that held the high-scoring Tigers, who came in averaging 73 points a game, only six second-half field goals -- and 1-for-13 from arc for the day -- that put the game away.

The Gators (30-2), seeded first in the event and seeking to win their first SEC Tournament title since 2007 and just the fourth in school history, advanced into Saturday’s semifinals, where they’ll face streaking Tennessee (21-11) at 1 p.m. Considering the Volunteers have won five straight by a combined 117 points, the Gators may want to put two halves together.

Though they seem to have this second-half blitz formula down.

“The one thing I’ll say about this group is they’re very resilient,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “They battle and fight. Things were not going their way in the first half and I thought we looked a little pouty and cranky to me.”

Donovan, in return, got a little cranky (and colorful) with them.

The Gators had not played in six days, they were coming off that emotionally charged “Senior Day” blowout of Kentucky, and earlier in the week were showered with flurry of postseason individual honors.

“There were a lot of things leading up to this game that set itself up for us not not to play well,” Donovan said. “But I give them credit. At halftime, we got some things corrected.”

Just before halftime, though, his team gave up a dunk at the buzzer that knotted the game at 29 and allowed the Tigers (22-11), in desperate need of a big win to boost their NCAA Tournament hopes, to bounce into the break with all kinds of momentum and confidence.

Meanwhile, in UF’s locker room, Donovan addressed his team’s poor ball movement and 34.6-percent shooting, the measly six points in the paint and nine turnovers. Thank goodness for that 6-for-12 effort from the 3-point line or else the Gators may have been down double-digits.

Donovan made it seem like they were.

“We got yelled at,” senior forward Will Yeguete said.

"Yeah," backup forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10 points, 9 rebounds), said with a nod, "Coach D had some interesting things to say."

Most of it had to do with making possessions count, moving the basketball better and ratcheting up the energy on defense.

“I thought we looked a little bit out of it,” Donovan said.

The Gators were far more into it in the second half.

“It all starts with getting stops,” Willbekin said.

UF scored the first seven points of the period, with Young (9 points, 3 rebounds) hitting a low-post jump hook, Frazier a 3 and freshman guard Kasey Hill (7 points, 5 assists) a driving runner.

The lead was just two, 38-36, when the game changed in a lightning-quick, 7-point sequence that took just 46 seconds.

Hill drove the lane, drew Mizzou's low-post defenders and fed Yeguete for a layup that allowed the Gators to set up their full-court pressure. That's when Wilbekin stole the inbound pass from Keanu Post, and while sailing out of bounds, kicked the ball back into Yeguete. Wilbekin then hopped back in play, set himself up in the corner, where Yeguete found him for a 3-pointer and seven-point lead.

When Tigers guard Jabari Brown (18 points, 5 rebounds) missed a trey at his end, Young answered with a post-up and hook shot that gave the Gators a nine-point lead in a blink.

Timeout, Tigers.

Then came two Casey Prather free throws. Then another 3-pointer by Wilbekin.

A couple 3-bombs by Frazier a few minutes later capped 23-4 run that blew the game open, with UF on its way to going 12-for-21 from the arc for the game, including 6-for-9 in the second half.

“We just starting playing the right way,” said Young, who anchored a UF defense that pressed and played a lot of zone after intermission. “We played better defense, kept the ball moving, knocked down shots ... and they had a long span where they couldn’t score. That was huge for us.”

From 11:58 to the 3:22 mark, the Tigers scored just one field goal on their way to going 6-for-19 from the floor in the second half (31.6 percent) and 0-for-6 from the 3-point line.

“They play in tandem with each other so well,” Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson said after his team was out-pointed 43-20 after halftime. “They always know where their teammates are going to be. When they play in that zone, they’re pretty long on the back end. And they’re a disciplined team.”

One that had been in close games before and probably will be again.

“It guess it’s a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Frazier said after finishing 5-for-7 from the arc and grabbing five rebounds. “Moving on, we can’t afford to come out a step slow to start the game. At the same time, it’s a good test of our character to be able to turn it on when we need to.”

A good test of their coach’s patience, also.


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