Avery Johnson took a page out of the Al McGuire defensive playbook Saturday at the O-Dome and it paid off handsomely for the Alabama Crimson Tide. Johnson wasn’t about to let Dorian Finney-Smith beat him so he used McGuire’s cut the head off the snake strategy by running four different players at Florida’s leading scorer while throwing in far more zone than he normally likes to play for good measure. If anyone was going to be the dagger in Alabama’s side, it wasn’t going to be Finney-Smith, who had scored 176 points in Florida’s previous nine games.
Johnson’s game plan would have backfired if maybe one or two of Finney-Smith’s teammates had gotten into some sort of offensive rhythm but when they couldn’t deliver, Alabama effectively cut the head off the snake and killed Florida’s chances at scoring a much-needed Southeastern Conference win.
“We just couldn’t make shots,” Finney-Smith said after the Gators (16-9, 7-5 SEC) dropped a 61-55 decision to Alabama and missed out on a chance to remain a game behind league-leaders Kentucky and LSU in the SEC standings. “They denied me shots the whole game and we just kept missing shots. They didn’t let me touch the ball at all.”
Finney-Smith scored 12 points and grabbed 9 rebounds, but he was only able to squeeze off 8 shots against Bama’s tough defense. With so much attention paid to Finney-Smith, there were opportunities for teammates to make shots but that wasn’t happening, not on this night. Take away Finney-Smith’s 3-8 from the field and teammates were a combined 15-55 (27.2%) from the field. Eliminate his 6-7 from the foul line and teammates combined to go 10-20. Finney-Smith, who normally gets 4-5 3-point shots per game, only got two and missed them both. The rest of the team went 3-19.
When Alabama wasn’t frustrating Finney-Smith by running Riley Norris, Michael Kessens, Shannon Hale and Retin Obasohan at him defensively, Johnson was alternating his zone looks.
“We tried to use 3-4 different defenders and give him different looks with those defenders,” Johnson explained post game. “He was a significant part of our scouting report and our game plan on how we were going to attack him.”
The secondary part of the defensive game plan was to eliminate the 3-point line and funnel everything to the middle of the court. When the Gators got into the paint, they found 6-10 Jimmie Taylor ready to intimidate. Taylor blocked 5 shots and altered maybe a dozen more.
“We didn’t get anything at the rim,” Florida coach Mike White said. “They ran us off the 3-point line with length and awareness. We just didn’t get a lot of open looks.”
But the Gators weren’t without opportunities.
Florida grabbed 23 offensive rebounds and got plenty of second and even third-shot opportunities but couldn’t get anything to fall. All those offensive rebounds resulted in only 11 second chance points.
“Offensive rebounds, putbacks … for whatever reason we couldn’t finish them,” White said. “Twenty-three offensive rebounds … and to score just 55 points. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a box score like that.”
There were points to be had at the foul line, particularly in the second half when Florida had chances to take control of the game but from the 16:50 mark until 5:32 remaining when KeVaughn Allen went 1-2 from the line, the Gators were combined 3-11 with John Egbunu missing 5 in a row at one point. And it’s not like Alabama was exactly tearing it up at the line – the Crimson Tide was only 12-22 on second half foul shots – so there were opportunities to be had for the Gators to win the basketball game.
“We got 13 more shots than them (63-50) and outrebounded them by almost 20 (54-35),” White said. “We just couldn’t score.”
That the Gators were going to have trouble putting the ball in the basket was apparent from the very beginning. On Florida’s first two possessions, the Gators ran plays for Egbunu in the low blocks, isolating him one-on-one for two easy looks at the basket.
Two easy looks, two easy shots but no points. On both occasions, the ball defied gravity and did everything but go through the net. There were a lot of shots like that during the game.
Not only wouldn’t shots go down, but the Gators had real problems getting shots for Finney-Smith. He didn’t get his first clear shot at the rim until there was 11:46 left in the first half and it took a tip-in after a missed jumper by Chris Chiozza with 10:56 to go before he got his first points.
“They denied Dorian the ball and Dorian is one of the best scorers on the team,” said Devin Robinson who scored only 2 points but finished with 12 rebounds.
The Gators went on an 8-0 run toward the end of the first half to build up a 27-20 lead, but Alabama closed the half on a high note when Justin Coleman banked in a 30-footer at the buzzer to keep it close at 27-23.
Once the second half began, it was the combination of not being able to make shots and stop Alabama that led to Florida’s demise. Florida hit only 9-33 from the field in the second half and only 1-12 from the 3-point line. Additionally, the Gators went only 9-18 from the foul line.
Alabama, meanwhile, went 12-20 from the field and hit 2-5 from the 3-point line.
“We had to be like almost perfect defensively and we weren’t close to it in the second half,” White said. “We didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
That wasn’t a problem for Alabama, which kept its poise even when leading scorer Obasohan (15 points) fouled out at the 5:35 mark.
Florida lost the lead for good (43-41) at the 8:50 mark on a conventional 3-point play by Obashohan. Trailing 48-43, the Gators had a chance to narrow the margin to a single point but Chiozza went 1-2 from the foul line with 5:43 to go and KeVaughn Allen did the same thing with 5:22 left. The Gators were unable to get closer than four the rest of the way.
Things don’t get easier for the Gators, who go on the road twice next week to Georgia (Tuesday night) and South Carolina (Saturday) before facing Vanderbilt at home and LSU in Baton Rouge.
“It’s a very tough loss for us … very tough,” White said. “As I just told our guys – just being honest – the next two will be much harder than this one was.”
GAME NOTES: Allen matched Finney-Smith with 12 points while Egbunu and Leon had 12 each. Egbunu also contributed 11 rebounds, 1 blocked shot and 2 steals … Alabama shot only 42% for the game (21-50) but that was sensational compared to the Gators, who were 18-63 (28.6%) overall and 3-21 (14.3%) from the 3-point line … Allen went 5-12 from the field, but no one else was close to 50%. Egubunu (2-9), Robinson (0-5), Chiozza (3-12) and Leon (4-11) found iron far more than net … Following Obasohan (15 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 1 steal) in the Alabama scoring column were Taylor with 11 points (4 rebounds, 2 assists, 5 blocked shots and 2 steals), Coleman (10 points) and Hale with 10 points.