Gators clear hurdle, advance to semifinals

Friday looked like the letdown game the Gators have been avoiding in recent weeks. No. 1 Florida got off to a sloppy start in the first half, struggling on the offensive end while heading into halftime tied with Missouri. The Gators fixed their problems in the second half, outscoring Missouri 43-20. Florida secured a 72-49 win over Missouri to advance to the SEC Tournament semifinals.

Florida shot 34.6 percent from the field in the first half and just 45.5 percent (5-11) from the free throw line. The Gators took bad shots from the field, settling for long range two-pointers with an offense that was out of rhythm.

"It was (ugly)," Scottie Wilbekin said on the postgame radio show. "Coach D really challenged us in the locker room. He got after us really good. We wanted to come out and respond and show that we're not the team that played in the first half. We had to come out in the second half and show that."

The team needed a jumpstart in the locker room and Donovan provided it. In fact, he wasn't surprised by the start. The emotional end to the regular season had him trying to find ways to recapture his team's focus during the week of practice. To fix it, he had jerseys put in every player's locker on Tuesday and threw them on the court to scrimmage.

And it was awful. The players were sluggish, out of position and missing shots. He wanted them to get it out of their system and realize how far they had to go to prepare for playing in the SEC Tournament.

"It set itself up for us not to play well," Donovan said. "We had a week off, the way the season ended and came full circle for our four seniors, and going to the SEC Tournament feeling good about ourselves. We tried to address those things in practice. I wanted them to get back emotionally and physically.

"There's an emotional battle that goes on, and now you're taking the next step. The thing that disappointed me in the first half is that it was our seniors (that struggled). At halftime, they got it corrected and show some resiliency and fight in the second half."

Florida responded to shoot 57 percent from the field in the second half. The Gators led by just two points with 11:59 to play. After that, Florida closed the game on a 34-13 run. When the lead was at two points, Florida seniors followed with 16 points to stretch the lead out and end the game with a comfortable win.

The sloppy first half gives the Gators something to improve on going forward.

"Nobody's perfect, and we're definitely not a perfect team," Wilbekin said. "We didn't come out with the right intensity. They played harder than us, and we have to adjust and get back to the hard working team we are."

When the Gators needed a basket, it was usually Wilbekin that provided it. After Kasey Hill dropped a perfect pass to Will Yeguete to push the Florida lead to 40-36, Wilbekin darted in for a perfectly timed steal on the following inbounds, saving the ball to Yeguete under the basket.

The ball was thrown back out to Wilbekin, who drilled a corner three-pointer to push the lead up to seven points while the Gators continued their run.

"The referee was counting down, so I knew Brown was going to make a break for the ball. I was able to get in there before him and save it to Will," Wilbekin said.

While the Florida offense got rolling in the second half, the defense continued to suffocate. After a Missouri layup by Jordan Clarkson with 11:59 left to play in the second half, the Tigers went 7:35 before hitting their next field goal. Missouri only made seven field goals in their entire second half.

"There's a lot that goes into defending them because they can be really explosive on offense. A lot of that requires five guys working together on every possession and understanding the position they need to be on the court. That's really important."

The win also served as Florida's 30th win this season. It's only the third time in program history to finish a 30-win season. It was also the 24th consecutive win for the Gators and the 18th straight win over an SEC opponent.

"It's hard to get 30 wins," Donovan said. "It's hard to win 30 games. What these guys have done to this point in time has been truly special. Now we're in a different part of our season with postseason. But for any team to win 30 games, that's very difficult."

Florida moves on to the SEC Tournament semifinals on Saturday at 1 p.m. The Gators will play the winner of South Carolina and Tennessee's game, which takes place on Friday afternoon.

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