Gators drop a big one to Vanderbilt at home

Florida’s stay in the top 25 came to an abrupt end Saturday afternoon, a game the Gators should have won. Call Vanderbilt’s 68-66 win at the O-Dome a case of the Gators snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and it left Mike White shaking his head, wondering what happened between practice Friday and Saturday morning’s shootaround and the actual game.

“I felt good yesterday in practice and we were locked in this morning,” White said. “It’s beyond me the mistakes that we made.”

This is a game Florida (14-5, 5-2 SEC) had to win and it was a game the Gators should have won. It’s not like Vanderbilt (9-10, 3-4 SEC) bamboozled them with exotic looks or indefensible athleticism.

What Vandy did was actually fairly simple. The Commodores ran a 3-man weave on the outside designed to get open shots on the perimeter. The Commodores got 25 3-pointers against a Florida defensive plan whose total focus was keeping them off the line. Take away the 3-ball and make them shoot the tough 2 was the plan.

Maybe it was the plan, but it’s not what the Gators executed once the whistle blew.

“It was the simplest plan that we had all year,” White said. “There were two sets they were going to run that they did something more complex than switching 1 through 5.”

Yet the Gators didn’t get stops.

Luke Kornet, the 7-footer who scores most of his points on 3-point attempts, got four wide open looks from beyond the arc. He buried three of them, all in the second half.

Riley LaChance, a 56% 3-point shooter coming into the game, was 3-4, and Matthew Fisher-Davis squeezed off 9 3-pointers. He only made 3 but he was enough of a threat that it opened him up for drives to the basket. He finished with 19 points.

Vanderbilt shot only 37% overall (10-27) and 35.7% (5-14) from the 3-point line in the first half when the Commodores trailed by 5 at the intermission, 32-27. In the second half, it was a different story altogether. Vanderbilt hit 13-23 shots overall (56.5%) and connected on 5-11 from the 3-point line.

The difference in the two halves had everything to do with Florida’s communication on defense. The Commodores are a team that can’t win without the 3-pointer, so nobody was more befuddled by the inability to get stops and take away the open 3-ball more than White.

 “We’re good enough defensively to guard them at a higher level than that,” White said. “It’s beyond me the mistakes we made.”

Florida’s mistakes weren’t limited to the defensive end of the floor. Although this game saw the resurrection of Kevaughn Allen, whose 29-point outburst represented 28 more than he scored in Wednesday night’s loss to South Carolina and more points than he scored in the three games since Tennessee (16), there was way too much standing around and far too much settling for jump shots. Allen was 10-18 from the field and 5-13 on his 3-point attempts but the rest of the team was 16-35 (35.7%) overall and 3-13 on 3-balls.

The Gators outscored Vanderbilt in the paint, 28-20, but most of those points came on drives to the hoop and occasional stick backs, not on set plays. John Egbunu, for example, scored 6 first half points including a step through dunk at the 1:02 mark that was his best offensive move of the year. When the game ended, Egbunu had the same number of points, attempts and makes as he had in the first half.

Now, part of Egbunu’s lack of second half productivity had to do with Vanderbilt electing to double down every time the Gators got the ball to him on the low blocks, but Egbunu got the ball out to open shooters more often than not. If the Gators hit the shots, the double team stops and that opens things up on the inside.

Only, the Gators didn’t make shots and they essentially became a jump shooting team in the second half. Jump shooting teams don’t draw fouls and score points from the line. Coming into the game, Florida was averaging almost 20 free throws per game. Against Vandy, the Gators shot 8 and hit 6.

Even with all these difficulties, however, Florida still should have won the game but there were far too many pointless possessions and too many chances for stops that were never made.

“We can’t score when we need to and we can’t get stops when we need to,” White said. “We are so much better than that.”

He’s right. The Gators are so much better than that, but to be the good team White knows they can be they have to zero in on the game plan and execute on both ends of the court. They have to hit open shots when they are there, protect the basketball better, make more intelligent passes and above all else, defend like the team that has consistently made it difficult for opponents to get open looks.

Nothing emphasized Florida’s offensive inadequacies more than the assist-turnover ratio. The Gators had 12 assists for the game and an equal number of turnovers.

“I don’t want to throw my guys under the bus but the assist-turnover ratio is crucial and we had 12 turnovers against a team that doesn’t turn you over much,” White said.

Over on defense, Vandy simply moved the ball, got the Gators out of position and found the open guy. It seemed like the Gators were content to defend for the first 20 seconds of the shot clock only to completely shut down communication in the last 10 seconds.

“We do scramble communication drills every day,” White said. “It’s incredible.”

This was another head shaking moment for White, who doesn’t like what he’s seeing from his team. During the Gators 7-game winning streak that preceded the losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, Florida played with focus and teamwork on both ends of the court was the word of the day.

Against Vanderbilt, White acknowledged there were players pointing fingers in the huddle.

“A lot of immaturity showed up,” he said.

The immaturity might have something to do with the fact the Gators played with an overall lack of energy. White said his team looked “tired” and he didn’t understand why.

“We played lazy offensively at times,” White said. “We looked tired. We look tired going up and down the court. We worked 63 minutes yesterday; we went 45 minutes the day before. I don’t know why we looked tired. It’s not physical. I guarantee Vanderbilt practiced more than we do.”

Whatever the issues – and there are many – they have to be solved in a hurry. The Gators won’t have the benefit of home court until February 2 against Missouri. Next week they hit the road twice, at LSU on Wednesday and then at Oklahoma in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge on Saturday.

The team that shows up to play both those games next week has issues between the ears that have to be resolved in a hurry.

“Our focus needs to improve immensely,” White said. “Now it needs to improve 10-fold. We took about six steps backward today.”

This is a fork in Florida’s road and what happens the rest of the season could be determined by how quickly White is able to get the Gators’ attention and get them focused in on doing things the right way again.

“Do we panic? Do we point fingers?” White asked. “Or do we simply man up?”


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