This wasn't a team on the ropes, though. There was no sense of desperation when Donovan surveyed his team, just the look of a team trying to steady itself so it could mount a counter punch.
"I could tell looking at them that they were fine," said Donovan after the fourteenth-ranked Gators (5-0) had indeed found their legs to come back for a 74-66 win over the Seminoles (2-1) at the O'Connell Center before a sellout crowd of 12,599 Friday night.
Florida State hit 10 of its first 13 shots, starting the game on a 10-0 run that expanded to 21-4 with 11:49 left in the first half. Florida meanwhile was turning the ball over, missing everything from behind the three-point line (0-5 to start) and playing defense with lead feet. It seemed that Florida was set up, ready for one more three or one more dunk from FSU that would basically put the game out of reach early. Donovan didn't see any wide eyes in the huddle, though, and he didn't see a team that was anywhere close to giving up.
"You can look at your team's eyes and you can see how guys second guess but not with these guys," said Donovan. "They have a have a deep belief in one another and a deep belief in themselves."
The comeback began improbably with scoring from a most unexpected source. Freshman Watler Hodge, a bigtime scorer in high school but a 1-15 brick mason in the first four games of the season, knocked down a three-pointer at the 11:28 mark, and after FSU's Andrew Wilson countered that with a three, Hodge hit another one to close the FSU lead to a far more manageable 24-10.
"Walter's a great shooter," said sophomore Corey Brewer, who would finish the night with 13 points, six rebounds, six assists, two blocked shots and two steals. "He's just young. He's going to settle down and make those kind of shots every game."
The two three-balls by Hodge had a relaxing effect on the Gators who got a fast break dunk out of Joakim Noah, a pair of Brewer free throws, a tip-in by Al Horford and a pair of free throws by Horford before FSU could score again. Florida battled FSU on even terms the rest of the half, closing within two on a Hodge fast break layup with 3:08 to go and at the 2:22 mark when Brewer snaked in for a layup.
The Seminoles closed hard though and expanded the lead back to eight, 38-30, at the half, but in Brewer's mind, the deal was already done. He said he knew Florida was going to win.
"We said that as soon as we came out the second half, we're going to grind it out, play our style of basketball and win the game," said Brewer.
Grinding it out for Florida meant executing the offense against Florida State's physical style of play. Grinding it out meant forcing FSU to shoot 39.1 percent in the second half after a first half in which the Seminoles shot 57 percent. Grinding it out meant taking the ball straight at the Seminoles, who fouled early and fouled often when forced to defend. Grinding it out also meant hitting free throws.
Entering the game, the Gators were 58-101 from the foul line, a below average 57 percent. In the first half, Florida shot free throws (11-18) pretty much the way they have been shooting them in the first four games. However, in the second half, the Gators went on a free throw shooting tear, at one point hitting 10 in a row as they went 22-27 in the second half and 33-45 for the game.
Point guard Taurean Green led the way at the foul line. He was 1-2 in the first half, but a perfect 14-14 in the second half. Green's performance was indicative of the way the Gators played on this night. Florida didn't have its A-Game offensively but still found ways to get points. Green continually took the ball to the rack and FSU kept fouling him.
In New York last week, Green had back to back 23-point games to win the Most Valuable Player trophy in the 2K Sports Coaches Vs. Cancer Tournament. In those games, Green hit one three-ball after another and was able to score off the drive. Friday night, he only got two shots off from the field and neither of them fell, but he hit the free throws, played tough defense and kept the Gators in the game. Green was Florida's leading scorer with 15 points, all from the foul line.
"Taurean is as tough a competitor as I have coached in the ten years I've been here," said Donovan, noting that Green "found a way to help our team win despite not being able to shoot and not being able to create off the dribble like he did in New York."
Todd Galloway got a layup off a steal to start the second half for the Seminoles, who stretched their lead to 10 points. The Gators countered with a dunk by Brewer, a pair of free throws by Green and a three-pointer by Lee Humphrey to cut the lead to 40-37 with 17:36 remaining.
Back to back threes by Florida State stretched the lead back to nine at 46-37 but Florida would go on a 12-1 run to take their first lead of the game at the 12:18 mark when Horford hit a pair of free throws to make it 49-47.
FSU got its final lead of the night at 58-57 on a Jason Rich jumper at the 5:32 mark but Florida answered with a 12-0 run that put the game away. Humphrey's three from the corner put Florida ahead for good at 60-58 and Green delivered six of the next nine points from the foul line as the Gators extended the lead to 69-58 with 1:22 remaining.
Brewer said the turning point of the game was when the Gators stepped out on the court for the second half determined to change the outcome of the game with their defensive play.
"We thought we're not making shots so we have to play defense," he said. "If we don't play defense we're not going to win."
Florida forced four turnovers and four missed shots on that critical 12-0 run at the end.
"We're not going to make shots every night, so what are we going to do when we're not making shots?" Brewer asked. "Tonight we proved that we can still win."
Donovan thought the second half showed Florida can overcome adversity and play at a high level.
"It's probably the best half of basketball that we've played this year," he said. "We defended, we rebounded and we executed very, very well on offense and we grind it out and found a way to win the game."
It was the kind of growing pains victory that coaches use as springboards to further success. The Gators certainly didn't play as they're capable of playing for all 40 minutes but a lot of that had to do with FSU and the physical style of play that forced the Gators out of their normal rhythm. The Seminoles concentrated on taking Green's offense away and defending the three-point stripe. The Gators came into the game averaging 22 three-point attempts and nine made threes per game. Friday, Florida was only 5-14.
The Gators could have hit the panic button when they couldn't do the things they normally do, and they could have launched threes in desperation to try to come back from the big deficit but instead, Florida just stayed calm. The Gators didn't force anything that wasn't there, but instead just concentrated on taking what FSU was willing to give up and use that to get back in the game.
It was the kind of performance that is a watermark for maturation for a team so young. Still, Donovan knows that there will be games in the future when Florida doesn't necessarily respond with such calm.
"There's going to be some growing pains," he said. "There's going to be some very humbling experiences. Since I've been here over 10 years this is as good a group competitively as I've coached. We have highly energized competitive guys.
"They make mistakes. They're immature in a lot of ways … there's growing, there's developing … but they love playing and they love competing. I'm not worried about them playing hard, being ready to play or being focused right now. They're the type of team that the more success they have the more on edge they get because they're afraid of losing what they've earned."
GAME NOTES: The Gators are at home Monday night against Alabama State … Horford had 14 points and a game-high nine rebounds … Hodge finished the game with 10 points, his first time in double figures in his Gator career … Florida had 21 turnovers and only 14 assists, the first time this season the Gators have had more turnovers than assists … Florida committed 23 personal fouls while FSU committed 34 … Florida came into the game shooting 52.4 percent from the field but the Gators were held below 50 percent (18-40) by FSU … Humphrey was 3-5 from beyond the arc and finished with 11 points. He's 19-36 for the season in three-pointers.