The Florida Gator men’s basketball team improves to 4-1 on the season Thursday night after a 79-59 victory over the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee.
The Gators went into this game without a true point guard as freshman Kasey Hill was out with injury and senior Scottie Wilbekin remains out due to suspension. It was clear early on that this caused problems as the Gators could not get anything going offensively. The Gators managed just two assists in the first 20 minutes of the game and just nine points halfway through the first half.
Not only did the Gators shoot poorly, but they failed to stay out of foul trouble as well. Senior starting guard Casey Prather played just four minutes in the first half receiving two early fouls. When you add in early fouls to sophomores Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II, and junior Eli Carter the Gators played with very little depth for much of the first 20 minutes.
This led the Gators and head coach Billy Donovan to go to the bench very early and give a couple of unlikely playmakers big minutes. Junior Jacob Kurtz played 27 minutes providing three points, two rebounds and a steal while junior Billy Donovan played seven minutes accounting for two points and a steal.
The numbers may have not been the most important statistic for these two Gators, but their ability to provide minutes and solid defense to a team that desperately needed it was crucial. Donovan spoke of the contributions he was able to get from his bench Thursday night.
“Jake gives us a lot of good minutes, and he’s a good player. Billy has been dealing with a torn labrum but I was very proud of these guys tonight.”
While the Gators shot poorly in the first half, the Raiders fared even worse. Middle Tennessee began the game 1 for 8 from the field and halfway through the first half found themselves with just five points. In a very sloppy first half, these teams combined for 32 free throws, 26 fouls and just 17 baskets.
At the close of the first half the Gators were shooting 9 of 25 from the field, while the Raiders shot a slightly better 8 of 20. The difference that gave the Gators their eight point first half lead came down to free throws. The Gators were 15 of 18 from the free throw line in the first half while the Raiders ,made 9 of 14.
As the second half got underway it was clear the Gators were given a specific message in the locker room. The Gators began the second half on an 18-6 run and never looked back. The Gators seemed to focus more on getting the ball up the court and not who would be taking it up there.
The Gators shot 64 percent from the field in the second half while the Raiders managed to shoot just 44 percent. The Gators shot 10 of 12 from the free throw line in the second half, while the Raiders shot 4 of 4. With the Gators able to create such opportunities, it became much easier for the team to pull away and secure a somewhat easy victory.
The Gators extended their home winning streak to 19 games, while the Raiders eight game road winning streak came to an end. The Raiders two leading scorers coming into this game, seniors Shawn Jones and Kerry Hammonds combined for just 11 points. The Gators defense has greatly improved since the first game of the season and head coach Billy Donovan has noticed.
“As disappointed as I was with the North Florida game, I believe we are moving in a positive direction defensively,” he said.
As the Gators slowly begin to figure out their identity as a team, the players know they still have many challenges ahead and obstacles to get through. On Thursday night the Gators were led by senior center Patric Young, who led all scorers with 16 points, shooting 5 of 9 from the field and 6 of 8 from the free throw line. Despite their setbacks, Young knows this team is capable of great things.
“You’re hit with a difficult situation, but you embrace it, go out and fight. Even without a point guard, we can all go out and execute our game.”
Up next for the Gators will be the Dolphins of Jacksonville University (1-3). The Gators get a few days off, and the question remains, when will we see senior guard Scottie Wilbekin? As the Gators get key players back, they should continue to get better, and that is a must with a tough stretch of games on the way.
To hear head coach Billy Donovan and some players on Thursday’s game, click on the links below.