Gators showcase improved defense

No. 16 Florida knew its offense wasn't going to be where it was in previous games this season. The loss of two point guards -- Kasey Hill to a high ankle sprain and Scottie Wilbekin to suspension -- kept that from happening. One way to make up for it was a renewed energy on the defensive end. It showed up in Florida's 79-59 win over Middle Tennessee on Thursday in the O'Connell Center.

"Not having a point guard definitely raised our sense of aggressiveness," said sophomore guard Michael Frazier. "We were like a wounded animal. We didn't have all our pieces, so we had to go in there and be aggressive and fight."

The wounded animal came out with plenty of fight on the defensive end. Florida kept Middle Tennessee at five points at the midway point of the first half and in single digits until there was 6:50 left to play in the first half. There was a six-minute scoring drought for the Blue Raiders and only two made field goals in the first 12 minutes of play.

For as much time as the Gators spent in practice this week learning how to run a functional offense on the court without a true point guard, they spent an equal amount talking about what would be required on defense.

"It's amazing," Florida guard DeVon Walker said. "You can always get stops. Even if you don't score, you can get stops. That was very important."

In the mind of Billy Donovan, it was the best defensive effort of the season. The head coach was extremely critical of his team's defensive effort after an eight-point win over North Florida, saying it was light years from where it needed to be.

"We're moving in a positive direction defensively," Donovan said. "I've seen growth out of our team in the last couple weeks."

There's still plenty of work to go on that end, and the return of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin from suspension will help the Florida defense, but the Gators continue to improve. Middle Tennessee was held to just 26 points in the first half and looked like it was the team without the general on the court to run the offense.

Florida forced 16 turnovers and outrebounded the Blue Raiders 31-26.

"We put a huge emphasis on the defensive end and holding a team," Frazier said. "That's a focus in practice the last few weeks because we're not where we want to be defensively as a team. We made strides tonight."

While the Gators ramped up their defensive intensity, the lack of a point guard was evident on offense in the first half. Florida struggled to generate ball movement and get open looks at the basket. The Gators managed to put up 34 points in the first half before reassessing at halftime.

"We were just stagnant," Donovan said. "It was painful to watch. Just calling it like it is. We flowed much better in the second half and shot a much better percentage."

It was the defensive success that kept Florida holding a lead at halftime and having more time to figure out the issues. Once that happened, the Gators settled in and ended the night with six players in double-figure points.

"That's great basketball – everybody eating bread," Walker said of the balance. "Everybody's getting points, everybody's having fun and doing well. I love it."

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