Gators find identity in defeat

Florida coach Billy Donovan was upset with his team when it left the floor after a 68-61 loss to Kentucky on Saturday night, but his frustration had nothing to do with the outcome.

Kentucky came into the game as the No. 1 team in the country and should be a heavy favorite for the rest of its games this season. What made Donovan angry is that it was the first time this season his team played with passion and the desire to come out with a win.

It was easy to see early in the game. Florida had an extra energy that wasn’t present in previous games, and that energy alone kept them in the game despite foul trouble and an ankle sprain to leading scorer Michael Frazier that kept him out for most of the second half.

“I’m just disappointed in my team. I really am,” Billy Donovan said. “It’s not the game at all. It’s the first time I’ve felt in 23 games we played to win.”

After the game, multiple Florida players spoke about what an example Saturday could be for the team. When they play hard and aren’t consumed with their individual performance, they can hang with any team in the country. Florida guard Eli Carter even said the team’s production was shocking when it played that hard.

For Donovan, that only makes the problem more obvious.

Somehow, it has taken his team this long to figure out what kind of intensity it needs to play with. It hasn’t been new problems, either. It’s the same frustration with players being focused on their own performance. That switched on Saturday night, and the players competed hard regardless of how the game was going for them and Florida almost pulled off the upset.

“You can draw a line down the middle,” Donovan said. “There’s a difference in performance and there’s a difference in competing. If you’re concerned about your performance, you’re not competing. When you’re competing, you’re not even remotely concerned about your performance. Just play.”

Multiple players showed that on Saturday. Eli Carter missed multiple open shots but still gave great effort on the defensive end. Kasey Hill has battled inconsistency throughout the year but put up 12 points and six assists with only one turnover. Foul trouble for Florida big men even forced walk-on Jacob Kurtz to switch off guarding lottery-pick big men in Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.

It was a set up for the Gators to get blown out, but their energy kept them in the game.

“This has been a team this year where winning has been secondary, and that’s why we’re 12-11,” Donovan said. “It has not been the primary focus of our team.”

So now the Gators face another big challenge. Sitting a game over .500 through 23 games this year, their NCAA Tournament hopes continue to look small. However, they found an identity on Saturday night against the nation’s top team.

When each player can ignore how the game is going for them and play hard, the Gators could get hot and go on a run at the end of the regular season. Donovan just isn’t sure if his team will handle Saturday the right away.

“I’m not so sure it’s going to (happen),” Donovan said. “I’m hopeful in some way that this has been an incredible learning and growing experience for them in terms of their immaturity and selfishness about themselves.

“What we do with this will be interesting to me in terms of what these guys are about.”

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