Gators win despite dismal three point shooting

The Florida Gators couldn't throw a three pointer in the ocean if they were standing on the end of the pier in the first half of Tuesday night's exhibition game with Division II Eckerd College at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

The Gators were a combined 6-22 from behind the arc and leading the Sunshine State Conference power by just five points, 46-41.

That's probably the best thing that could have happened.

"Probably the worst thing that could have happened would have been if we go 12-22 from the three point line and we go up 22 points or so at the half," said Coach Billy Donovan. "That would have been fool's gold.

"So to me the best thing that happened was we shot terrible, quick rush shots and we didn't guard anybody and it was a 4-5 point game at the half."

The Florida coach needed to get his team's undivided attention and that first half was exactly the vehicle he needed to get his point across.

"We didn't guard a soul in the first half," said Donovan. "They (Eckerd) are a Division II team and we're supposed to be a top 25 team. These guys have to understand that there are nights when you don't shoot well, when someone schemes the right way to stop you, but you ALWAYS have to play defense."

He demanded a change of focus for the second half, shifting the offensive burden to moving the ball inside first to take advantage of the height differential and on the defensive end, wanted intensity to stop Eckerd's three-point shooting. The Tritons shot 50 percent from behind the arc in the first half on a 6-12 effort.

"Coach (Billy) Donovan got our attention at halftime," said senior power forward David Lee, who scored a game-high 26 points in the Gators 90-79 win before a crowd of 7822. "He told us to stop shooting the threes and get the offense going inside and he wanted us to get after some people on defense. I think the first two possessions of the second half we showed that we had raised our defensive intensity and we just took it from there."

On the first two possessions, the Gators totally shut down Eckerd and got the ball quickly into transition. The offense, totally outside-oriented in a first half of 39 percent shooting, improved to 52 percent in the second half as Lee and freshman center Al Horford dominated.

Junior guard Matt Walsh (19 points) got his offensive game going in the second half, too, a tribute to his hustling defense.

"We keep hustle stats (offensive chargest, first to the floor for a loose ball, deflected passes, challenge shots, blockouts, etc.) and he had 16 tonight," said Donovan. "Matt lays it on the line. He gives unbelievable effort.

"It was good to see him play better offensively in the second half. He got focused by playing defense. He's the perfect example that you don't have to be the greatest athlete in the world to press. You just have to play with great passion and energy and you can be disruptive and have an impact on the game."

With the defense ratcheted up, the Gators forced 17 second half turnovers by Eckerd and held the Tritons to 36 percent shooting including 0-7 from behind the arc.

The most consistent presence defensively was Horford. The 6-8, 240-pound freshman finished the game with 12 points, 12 rebounds and six blocked shots. He provided a strong defensive presence in the post and showed great hands plus the ability to get to the ball.

"Al lives in each moment," said Donovan. "He's focused on what's going on. Some guys if they don't get the ball when they're open, they get down and depressed. Al just plays through that and focuses on the things that he can control.

"He has that Brent Wright type of toughness and physicality. I think it's a mentality. Some guys get wrapped up in ‘I want the ball' but Al finds ways to go get the ball. Al understands the importance of what it takes to win. Some players think doing the tough jobs like blocking out, rebounding, setting picks is demeaning, but Al knows that's what you have to have to win."

Horford and his fellow freshmen (Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Cornelius Ingram) gave the Gators an energy jolt on this night, and it's an energy that Donovan says they bring to every practice. Lee says their energy and hard work has the upper classmen motivated to play hard all the time.

"I'm really excited about these freshmen and their work ethic," said Lee. "They make us work harder every day. They are all for the team and they want the team to be better, so they push us every day.

"When they get in the game, I think they can play hard and do well. exited about these freshmen and their work ethic they make us work harder. There are no Carmelo Anthonys in this group but as far as their work ethic, they bring it every day. I really wish I had their work ethic when I was a freshman."

In addition to Horford, Brewer had an intense game defensively on the wing and was a disruptive force. Green showed his mettle on a two on one fast break that he blew up and forced a jump ball. Ingram got his hand in the passing lane two or three times to get deflections. Horford's best play came in the first half when he perfectly timed an Eckerd alley-oop to get the block at the apex of the jump.

"Did you see him get that?" Lee asked. "And then Corey Brewer's dunk there at the end? I had a side view of that. That was really intense."

It was only an exhibition game, and one that showed the Gators have a lot of work to do before their season opener November 19 in Jacksonville, but there were flashes of improvement to be seen.

"We've got a long way to be where we want to be," said Lee, "but I think we've got the work ethic to keep improving. I think we're going to be okay."

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