Notebook: Handling success

Florida coach Billy Donovan gave his team a warning after it clinched the Southeastern Conference championship. He saw in recent years when the Gators clinched the title and followed it with disappointing outings and losing focus. This year's team had a chance to do something special and had to avoid the letdown to make it happen.

The back-to-back national championship teams both faced the same struggle. Once the SEC title was clinched, they lost focus and struggled on the court. That changed when the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament rolled around, but their focus late in the regular season wasn't where it needed to be.

This team had more on the line. Florida was riding a perfect conference record with three conference games remaining after it clinched the outright title. The goal was perfection, and Donovan wanted his team to continue working as hard as it did early in conference play.

"I think you can learn from the past," Billy Donovan said. "If you go back, as great as (Joakim) Noah, (Al) Horford and those guys were, you can point to those guys clinching an SEC championship and limping to the finish, where they dropped three out of three or four out of five in those years."

Donovan challenged this year's team. If the back-to-back national title teams with three top-10 picks on the roster could fall into the trap, how difficult would it be for the Gators to avoid it this year? So the seniors bought into the same message Donovan has used since the season started.

It was built around starting over. After every game, the Gators had to be willing to go back to the beginning of the process and work on preparing for the next.

"Can we be the best we can be today? Then we'll let the results fall where they may," Donovan said. "But can we chase being the best we can be? You have to have everybody bought in, and I think we've rallied around that."

And they did. It ended with a celebration on Saturday, not only of winning the third SEC title in four years, but also perfection. The Gators became the first team in SEC history to complete a perfect season during an 18-game schedule and the first team to do it since Indiana in 1976.

"When you invest four years like these guys invested, it means something to them," Donovan said. "They're going to carry this with them the rest of their lives. They're going to have children and come back here, and they'll be remembered for what they've done. They're done something that's not happened here before.

"There were a lot of emotions and I'm proud of how they handled themselves."

Some coaches would avoid the topic, not wanting to put added pressure on the team. Donovan didn't take that route. The Gators have been talking about staying perfect for weeks. The goal was to be as open as possible with the players, helping them to realize the goals out in front of them. If the topics were avoided, they would certainly be on the minds of the players.

So they talked about it, and the more they did, the more the seniors realized they wanted it to happen. That's why Saturday's celebration was so important.

They didn't always know it was coming. In fact, if asked about if before the season, Casey Prather knew his reaction.

"I would've told them to get out of my face, I don't believe them," he said with a laugh while being interviewed with the net around his neck.

THREE-POINT SUCCESS: The impressive three-game stretch for Florida has been jumpstarted by its three-point shooting. In games against LSU, South Carolina and Kentucky, Florida is shooting 47.8 percent (33-69) from behind the three-point line.

Donovan pointed out after Saturday's win over Kentucky that it could be the team getting its legs back. After a stretch with four of five games being played on the road, the Gators returned home against LSU and had better energy.

"We got through that period and got our legs back under us," Donovan said. "We were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

HILL'S BEST GAME: Freshman Kasey Hill missed time with a groin injury suffered at Kentucky in mid-February, but his three games back have given the Gators a lift. It was no more noticeable than Saturday. The backup point guard played 21 minutes, scoring eight points with four rebounds, seven assists and one turnover. He hit his only field goal attempt and went 6-6 from the free throw line after shooting 59.7 percent from the stripe this season.

It was the perfect time for his breakout game. Starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin picked up his second round with 10:18 remaining in the first half and was on the bench for the remainder of the half. Hill's emergence meant the Gators could get away with holding Wilbekin in the second half, and even without its starting point guard, Florida had 14 assists on 16 made field goals in the first half.

"I thought it was Kasey Hill's best game by far here," Donovan said. "He was aggressive, physical and tough. He played with a motor, energy. Kasey ran our team and allowed me to keep Scottie on the bench without putting him in harm's way of getting his third. It says a lot for what Kasey did running our team and the other guys that stepped up."

The added bench depth has been an important part of Florida's recent run. The Florida bench outscored the Kentucky bench 24-13 during Saturday's game, including 20-0 in the first half when Florida made its run to take control of the game. It gives Florida added scoring punch off the bench, but it also allows Donovan to switch defenses to keep the opposition guessing.

"We've been able to press effectively because now with Chris Walker, DeVon Walker, Kasey Hill and Dorian (Finney-Smith) coming off the bench, we've got more numbers and can try to wear people down. We can play different styles," Donovan said.

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