Notebook: Gators find their competitiveness

Florida’s inability to respond to difficult times has been Billy Donovan’s biggest frustration this season. On Saturday, they answered the challenge.

Nothing that happened in the O’Connell Center was pretty. Neither team shot the ball well, and it was a physical game in the paint. The Gators could have backed down, especially when Arkansas controlled the early part of the game. They’ve done that in recent games and allowed the opposition to dictate the pace or physicality of the game and then backed off.

The Gators didn’t back down on Saturday.

When shots weren’t falling earlier in the year, multiple Florida players couldn’t get over their personal struggles and let it bleed into other ways that they could impact the game. They fought Arkansas hard on both ends of the floor despite the Gators shooting only 34.6 percent from the field.

“When things have not gone well for these guys, they lose their competitive spirit,” Donovan said. “They don’t fight, they don’t scratch, they don’t claw. They get a ‘woe is me.’ They get down. They don’t battle and I felt like in the game, there were a couple games where we were teetering a little bit. But this game, I felt like we battled as hard as we could.

“That’s the biggest thing we’ve missed -- a competitive spirit. Today, I think we competed better. I saw us battle and fight, even when we got down by nine. There have been some small areas and steps of growth, but we’re going to be a team where we have bad nights shooting.”

Multiple players credited desperation after the game. The Gators know that if they want to make the NCAA Tournament, there isn’t much room for error. They have to play well and can’t suffer bad losses. Even more importantly, they can’t give up the chance for a big win, which is most Florida’s NCAA Tournament resume is missing the most.

It finally came on Saturday. Arkansas came into the game with the No. 19 RPI and serves as Florida’s first top 50 RPI win this year. The desperate play showed just when the Gators needed it to.

“I think every team, you always want your team playing desperate,” Donovan said. “That’s not a bad thing. It’s not playing with anxiety, fear or worry. It’s playing with meaningful purpose with every possession. There’s things you can do out of desperation that can be very positive.”

DEFENSE LEADS THE WAY: With the offense struggling, the Gators had to improve defensively. After giving up 72+ points in four of their last five games while doing it just once in the first 16 games of the season, Florida faced a challenge in Arkansas.

The Razorbacks led the SEC with 81.7 points per game coming into Saturday. The Gators held them 26 points and 5.9 percent from the field below their season averages.

“We were good, we were engaged,” Donovan said. “We competed in the game. We fought.”

The players knew that the offensive issues meant an improved defensive effort was necessary.

“We’re trying to work hard and be the aggressors,” Dorian Finney-Smith said.

FINNEY-SMITH LEADS: Finney-Smith was the only Florida player in double figures, scoring 16 points and pulling down nine rebounds. He was aggressive with two big dunks that gave the crowd life, and the junior provided many of the big baskets when Florida needed them.

Michael Frazier got the headlines because of his late free throws, but Florida wouldn’t have been in a position to win it without Finney-Smith’s production.

“He did a lot of really good things today,” Donovan said. “He had great drives to the basket, finished strong. He did a lot of different things and had an all-around very good game. He competed very hard. He carried a lot of the load today.”

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