Brandone Francis-Ramirez sparks Gators past WVU

That wasn't an alien knocking down 3-pointers for the Florida Gators; that was Brandone Francis-Ramirez.

What we saw at the O-Dome Saturday was not the sequel of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Aliens have not snagged Florida’s redshirt freshman guard Brandone Francis-Ramirez and replaced him with someone who can actually shoot the basketball. That really was Brandone Francis-Ramirez, the same guy whose outside shot and SCUD have become synonymous. He really did hit three 3-pointers in a row. And those weren’t aliens hitting 12-20 from the 3-point line, 24-31 from the foul line after an inauspicious 1-6 start and scoring 88 points on one of the best defensive teams in the country in West Virginia. Those were the Gators Mike White has been waiting to see.

They weren’t the Gators stunned West Virginia coach Bob Huggins expected. His 9th-ranked Mountaineers were taken apart by a Florida team that played its best game of the season for an 88-71 blowout win in the Big 12-SEC Challenge.

Huggins gave plenty of credit to Florida, but added “we have to play like our hair is on fire.” The Gators were the team that was on fire offensively and like they had fire extinguishers defensively because other than a first half run in which the Mountaineers outscored UF 12-0, Florida was totally in control.

Surprising it was. “Exposed” is how White described it.

“I told our guys congratulations; you guys were incredible but in a certain sense you exposed yourselves,” White said after the Gators got their first O-Dome win over a top 10-ranked non-conference team since they knocked off Ohio State on December 23, 2006. “That’s what we’re capable of.”

The Gators are 14-7 this season but at least four of those losses were very winnable games if only a shot had fallen here or there. Just last Tuesday night, the Gators lost to Vanderbilt, 60-59. One more layup or 3-ball would have won it. One more free throw would have won it. Even some of the wins could have been blowouts if only the Gators had hit decent percentages whether from the floor or the foul line.

“Sometimes it comes down to making shots,” White said. “We’ve had games where we’ve played with tremendous energy and we’ve been off the charts defensively and we couldn’t throw it in the ocean. This was one of those nights when we put it all together.”

So, it’s understandable why so many of the 11,611 fans in the O-Dome were looking at each other in wonder when the Gators systematically took apart the Mountaineers. And the biggest surprise of all was that stretch at the end of the first half when fouls had John Egbunu and Dorian Finney-Smith on the bench along with Kasey Hill, who caught an elbow and broke his nose.

The Gators, whose 16-point lead had shrunk to only 4 at one point, held a 36-30 lead when Francis-Ramirez launched from the corner with 2:27 left in the half. Instead of another collective groan – Francis-Ramirez was 5-40 from the 3-point line and 12-73 from the field overall – the O-Dome erupted when the ball found the bottom of the net to give the Gators a 39-30 lead.

Not only did that shot lift Francis-Ramirez – “I haven’t had that feeling in a long time,” he said post-game – but it sent a jolt of energy through the unconventional lineup White was using at the time. Starters KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza were on the floor with Devin Robinson, Schuyler Rimmer and Francis-Ramirez and that unusual combination went on to outscore the Mountaineers, 6-0, the rest of the way for a 45-30 halftime lead.

“It was an unconventional lineup for sure,” White said. “We strung together some stops and really took care of the basketball and it was after they had cut it to four. So going into the half up 15 was huge.”

One of the keys to the final surge was the play of Rimmer in the middle. He dropped in both free throws for his only points of the game with 2:10 left in the half, but it was his defense that mattered most. He held his ground nicely and didn’t let West Virginia’s beastly (6-9, 260) Devin Williams get inside position.

“I thought Schuyler Rimmer obviously didn’t get a ton of touches offensively but I thought defensively – scouting report defense – did a good job of moving his feet and meeting their bigs at times knowing the action is coming. He played really intelligently. He plugged up the paint for us in a really positive way.”

When the zebras went whistle-happy early in the second half, calling five fouls on UF in the first 3:18 and 10 in the first 8:11, Francis-Ramirez again came to the rescue. Egbunu and Finney-Smith had been tooted for their third fouls, which sent them to the bench, so Francis-Ramirez picked up where he left off in the first half. He hit a 3-pointer from the wing with 16:14 to go that made it a 55-36 game and after WVU cut the lead down to 13 (57-44) he knocked down another 3-ball from the corner with 13:43 to go and like the shot he knocked down in the first half, it provided another jolt of energy.

While UF fans had every right to be shocked when Francis-Ramirez knocked down shots, teammates weren’t the least bit surprised.

“I’m not surprised,” said Finney-Smith, who led the Gators with 24 points, hitting 5-7 of his 3-pointers. “You see him making shots every day in practice. I’m happy the lid came off the rim today and he got to see the ball going in.”

Allen says teammates have continued to encourage Francis-Ramirez to launch shots even when he’s struggled.

“We just tell him to keep on shooting because we know he’s a good shooter,” Allen said.

All Francis-Ramirez could say about teammate support was “amazing … sometimes I get so down on myself and I don’t even realize how much those guys care for me and try to keep me engaged.”

Following the second of Francis-Ramirez’s 3-balls, the Gators went on a 9-4 mini-run led by a 5-point outburst by Finney-Smith for a 20-point lead (69-49) with 10:37 to go and from there it was just a matter of taking care of the basketball and playing smart.

When the fouls started to even out in the final 10 minutes, the Gators took advantage of their opportunities at the foul line. Florida hit its first 12 free throws of the second half – the Gators also hit their last four of the first – before a miss by Dorian Finney-Smith with 48.6 seconds to go broke a string of 16 straight.

This was the kind of win that White hopes will provide momentum the rest of the season. There are 10 SEC games to go and that will determine if the Gators are good enough for the NCAA Tournament or headed to the NIT. Progress has been made, but White knows this is only another whistlestop on the journey.

“We’ve come a long way as a team, not that we’ve arrived … we’ve got a ways to go,” White said.

In the locker room post game, White asked the Gators if they were tougher and if they were a better team than they were when the season began back in November and he reported “the answer was a resounding yes … if we had played West Virginia two months ago I don’t think we would have had any shot at these guys.”

The first opportunity to prove that the Gators are maturing and improving will come Wednesday night when Arkansas pays a visit to the O-Dome.

“This [West Virginia game] shows our guys this is what we’re capable of,” White said. “Can we match that intensity level. Can the Arkansas game be as big to us as this game was?”

GAME NOTES: Asked after the game if he envisioned an 88-point outburst, White responded, “No way in my mind did I think we’d score 88 points on West Virginia.” The Mountaineers were only giving up 63.8 points per game and ranked #1 nationally in defensive efficiency prior to the game … Finney-Smith’s stat line included 5-6 from the foul line, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and a blocked shot … After breaking his nose in the first half, Hill came back to play very well in the second … Allen went 9-9 from the foul line and contributed 4 assists … Chiozza hit 2-3 from the 3-point line, scored 10 points and handed out a game-high 6 assists … The Gators forced 18 turnovers and converted them into 21 points … Florida matched West Virginia’s 28 points in the paint … Devin Williams had 13 rebounds to go with his 12 points for West Virginia … The Mountaineers hit 25-58 from the field (43.1%) and 7-20 (35%) from the 3-point line.

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