Florida dropped into a tie with suddenly hot Kentucky for second place in the division Wednesday night. The once-struggling Wildcats are heating up at just the right moment. They earned their third straight SEC win Wednesday night when they hosed Ole Miss, 80-40, in Oxford. The Wildcats have roadies to LSU and Tennessee remaining on the schedule before they close out on Senior Day with the Gators in Lexington. Florida has Alabama on Sunday, Georgia in the O-Dome next Wednesday and then the dreaded trip to Lexington to close it out.
This isn't how it was supposed to be. The Gators were hot and had everything going their way with an impressive home blowout of LSU and then that solid win up in Nashville but instead of climbing to the top of the mountain, they are slip-sliding down the slope after losing a second straight game in which they had the ball and a chance to hit a game-winning shot in the final 20 seconds.
Saturday the Gators lost in overtime at Arkansas but they did get a last shot in regulation. Wednesday night, Florida had the basketball again with less than 20 seconds to go only this time they turned the ball over. This time Corey Brewer's inbounds pass with 18.8 seconds remaining, the one that was intended for Al Horford, was picked off by Dane Bradshaw who converted it into a layup and a 74-72 Tennessee lead.
The Gators still could have tied the score and sent the game into overtime, but Brewer launched a three with four seconds left that only drew iron. It was a play that Donovan would have preferred for Brewer to take the ball to the rack where he could have gotten a layup, gotten fouled or else one of Florida's big men could have stuffed the ball back in. But instead of driving to the rim, he took the shot and Tennessee's Chris Lofton grabbed the rebound, got fouled, and sealed the win at the other end of the court with a pair of free throws. That set off a celebration among the Vols and left the Gators wondering what might have been if they had been the team that stepped up and made the plays when they counted the most.
It was the fourth time this season the Gators have lost a game by four points, the second time to Tennessee. The fifth loss was a six-pointer to South Carolina in Columbia and that's the only game of the five that the Gators didn't have the ball with a chance to win in the final seconds. The difference between 27-0 and the number one ranking in the nation and 22-5 and fighting for their lives to finish second in the SEC East is a mere 22 points.
The difference Wednesday night was seen in two areas: the three-point line and game management in the final seconds.
Tennessee scored 33 points from the three-point line (11-21) while the Gators managed just 3-13. The Gators did a good job of handling Chris Lofton, the Vols superb three-point marksman. He got 12 points off three-pointers in the first half but he was held in check in the second half. Bradshaw, JaJuan Smith and C.J. Watson more than made up for Lofton, hitting timely threes when the Vols needed them the most. Florida dominated the inside with Joakim Noah scoring 20 before he lost a tooth and got some stitches in the mouth when he took an elbow with 1:55 remaining but Tennessee had the equalizer at the three-point line.
In the final seconds, the Gators showed their inexperience. When they needed maturity, they either got indecision or bad decisions. Just a few weeks ago, Brewer turned the ball over on a fast break that would have put the Gators in the lead in the final 20 seconds against Tennessee in Knoxville, a turnover that was turned into the go-ahead points on a layup by Bradshaw. Brewer turned it over on an inbounds pass Wednesday night and the ever opportunistic Bradshaw was there to make the play for the go-ahead layup. When the Gators got the ball back, Brewer went for the win on a three-pointer instead of using his size and quickness to take the ball to the rack.
Brewer is a sophomore, new to the role of making game-deciding plays. As a freshman last year, he watched David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh take on that responsibility when games were on the line. This year, he's doing on-the-job training. Even though he scored 17 points Wednesday night, he had his moments when he played like the sophomore he is.
On the Tennessee side, Bradshaw is a junior who has plenty of big-game experience for the Vols, just like point guard C.J. Watson, the guy who really does control the ebb and flow of the Tennessee game. Andre Patterson and Major Wingate are both seniors who have been there and done that. Lofton is a sophomore with 40 starts under his belt.
Florida, meanwhile, counters with a starting lineup that has four sophomores and a freshman. There's no denying they are a talented bunch that plays hard, plays unselfishly and plays with passion but that doesn't always translate into mature decision-making or consistency. Inexperience is not an excuse for them, just a reality that means for every victory there is a tough lesson that is often learned the hard way.
The have won some close games this season but they have also lost five very close games that they could have won. In at least four of those five losses, the inexperience factor reared its ugly head at the critical moments when the Gators most needed some maturity.
"I don't believe that with a young basketball team that for us to fully reach our potential as a team it just all of a sudden by a magic formula and with no experience happens," said Donovan. "It just doesn't work like that. Sometimes in life you have to go through the adversity and the struggles and the pain and the suffering before you can reap the rewards of your hard work and labor.
"My thing is, based on what do we deserve to win these games? Based on what should we win those games? Based on what … on four sophomores and a freshman? We beat by a better team tonight with more experience. That's what happened."
Even though it happened for a second straight game and for at least the fourth time this season, Donovan doesn't see losing another tight one as reason to call in a team psychologist or consider hitting the panic button. He believes that winning is a learned habit and that sometimes you have to experience the pain of losing before you understand just what it takes to win the tight games.
As one who's done it as a player and as a coach, Donovan knows that there is no way to instantly create game experience. The only way his team will learn to make the big plays at the big moments is to be on the court in the critical moments. Sometimes they will succeed and other times, like Wednesday night, they will fail. The winning is a euphoric shadow that often hides the fact that there is still so much to learn. So, now is the time to be patient and focus on improving his team. They can win and they can lose but they can always improve and they can always take that next step closer to the goal of handling adverse situations with confidence and maturity.
While he's waiting on his team to gain experience and mature, Donovan knows that Florida fans are a fickle bunch. They remember the 17-0 start and now that the Gators are 5-5 in the ten games since the record-setting beginning of the season, he is aware that fans wonder why things just couldn't stay the same.
"You have to go through this," he said. "As much as I'd like to say there's a magic potion that you have, there's really not," said Donovan. "I'm not really concerned. For me it's about the growth and development of our team and our kids getting better. These are the same kids that nobody gave credit to at the beginning of the season. You can't go back and forth fluctuating."
He's also aware that even if Brewer makes the inbounds pass and even if he hits the three-pointer for the win, there are still issues as a coach that he has to deal with. The problems are the same, win or lose, and solving the problems, eliminating the mistakes that get a team into situations where they have to hit a last second shot to win are the critical issues that Billy Donovan has to deal with.
"If Corey Brewer's shot goes in at the end, we're not having this conversation," Donovan said. "It's wow, Florida won a close game! They have all their problems resolved. I would sit up here and say we still have the same issues. If Corey Brewer's shot goes down and they go down and miss a shot and we win, we're not talking about this but for me the issues I've seen all year long have been there but you win people don't look at those things."
He will look at those things, though. He will have the Gators on the practice floor Thursday afternoon and he'll be coaching them up, teaching them the same things he's been teaching them all season long. Yes, they do work on clock management and yes, they do work on inbounds plays at the end of the game. They do it every single day, every single practice.
But doing it in practice and doing it in games are two different things. At some point, practice and games will all seem one and the same. At some point the Gators will figure it out and instead of turning the ball over at the end of games or taking the wrong shot they'll make the right decisions, the right passes and the final shots will go down.
Until then, each game is just another step on a road to maturity. They're 22-5 right now and even though they could easily be 27-0, they're much further along than anyone expected back in November. It's a learning process. It just requires a lot of patience right now.