NASHVILLE, TN – It is a little late in the season to be looking for moral victories, but Tuesday night the Gators showed up and played hard from start to finish. Florida still lost the game, 77-67, but the Gators made Vanderbilt sweat until the final minute. Had they played with this kind of energy and effort against Georgia this past Saturday, the Gators wouldn’t be tied for second in the Southeastern Conference right now.
Erving Walker helped to rally the Gators back from a 12-point deficit Tuesday night but it wasn't enough in the end.
The final outcome of this game had everything to do with Vanderbilt (21-9, 10-5 SEC) having superior size, depth and a decided advantage at the foul line but even though the Gators (22-8, 10-5 SEC) came up short in those areas, their hustle kept them in it until the shots stopped falling in the final five minutes. After Bradley Beal nailed a 3-pointer with 5:44 remaining in the game to cut the Vanderbilt lead to 62-61, the Gators went 1-9 from the field the rest of the way.
Vandy only hit one more shot from the field – a 3-pointer by Jeffery Taylor with 5:34 left in the game – but the Commodores made a steady parade to the foul line to put the Gators away. The Commodores went 9-10 from the line in the last five minutes and finished the game with a decided free throw advantage. Florida was 7-11 from the line for the whole game while Vandy was 19-26.
Vanderbilt also had the advantage at the 3-point line. With John Jenkins (6-9) and Taylor (4-8) leading the way, the Commodores shot 50 percent on 3-balls. The Gators finished 8-24 from the 3-point line, but they hit only two of their final 10 and only one 3-pointer in the final five minutes when they desperately needed some shots to drop.
FAST START FOR VANDY: The way it started, the Gators seemed doomed to be on the wrong end of a blowout. Vanderbilt hit its first three shots to take a 7-0 lead and expanded it to 19-7 when Festus Ezilin hit a little turnaround shot in the lane with 10:55 to go. At that point, the Gators seemed wobbly and perhaps just another Vandy 3-pointer from going down for the count early, but Vandy missed a couple of shots and that seemed to give the Gators time to catch their breath.
FIRST HALF RALLY: Florida went on a 7-0 run with Patric Young scoring the final four points to cut the margin to 19-14 and after Vanderbilt stretched the lead back to 25-16, Erving Walker scored eight straight points to bring the Gators back to within one at 25-24. Scottie Wilbekin hit a 3-pointer from the corner with 1:17 to go in the half to tie the game at 27-27 but a Taylor 3-pointer with 35 seconds to go gave the Commodores the 30-27 lead they took into the locker at the half
THE PRESS TURNED IT AROUND IN THE SECOND HALF: The Commodores outscored Florida 9-3 to start the second half and again the Gators seemed to be teetering on the verge of going down big. That’s when Florida’s press started to kick in and cause problems for the Commodores. The Gators outscored Vandy 9-3 to cut the lead to 42-39. After another 3-pointer by Jenkins, Florida’s press got the Gators back to 45-43 when Mike Rosario got a steal that turned into a Beal layup with 13:14 to go.
TAKING THE LEAD: Florida was down 49-45 when Kenny Boynton knocked down a 3-pointer and a long rebound to Erving Walker was converted into a run-out dunk at the other end by Casey Prather for a 50-49 Florida lead with 10:34 left in the game. The Gators led again at 52-51 on an Erik Murphy layup and at 55-54 on a Murphy 3-pointer with 9:15 to go in the game.
VANDY REGAINS CONTROL: Florida used 3-pointers from Rosario and Beal to keep it close but after Beal knocked down his 3-pointer with 5:44 left, Florida’s shots wouldn’t fall anymore and Vandy began a parade to the foul line that ended any chance for the Gators to pull off a win.
DONOVAN QUOTES: "We drove it. We kicked it. I thought we got some really good looks. I thought their zone would be good for us, because we had five 3-point shooters out there with Erik. I think the two plays that probably hurt us the most in that stretch were probably down five Patrick gets the offensive rebound and misses close to the basket, and then Erving stole the ball, tried to drive baseline, bobbles it and gets called for a travel. I thought those things hurt us, but also it was my fault for trying to change defenses. We got caught changing up in transition a few times, and Taylor and Jenkins torched us."
"I was as disappointed as I’ve ever been as a coach watching our guys walking off the court in Athens. I felt the total opposite here tonight. I thought we competed. I thought we played hard against a very good team. With the injuries, there needs to be a resiliency and maturity to fight through that stuff."
"You can see your team when they have the look, and I thought we had that resiliency tonight. When Erving’s locked in and really focused on playing, it charges our team up. It gives our team confidence. He gave us a lot of energy."
STATS: Beal led Florida with 16 points while Walker finished with 15 and Boynton had 11. Florida outrebounded Vanderbilt 26-23. Vanderbilt shot 52.3 percent from the field and 50 percent (12-24 from the 3-point line). The Commodores finished with a 12-point advantage form the 3-point line and a 12-point advantage at the foul line. Jenkins led Vanderbilt with 22 points while Taylor had 18 and Ezili had 11.
WHAT’S NEXT: Florida can still clinch second in the SEC but it will take an upset win over #1-ranked Kentucky at the O-Dome Saturday. The Gators have already clinched a first round bye, but the Gators could finish as low as fourth in the league if they lose and Tennessee wins the next two games including a win over Vanderbilt in Knoxville Saturday. Florida could still finish second if Vanderbilt loses to Tennessee Saturday but Tennessee loses to LSU tonight.
* 1. Kentucky 14-0 SEC, 28-1
2. (Tie) FLORIDA 10-5 SEC, 22-8
2. (Tie) Vanderbilt 10-5 SEC, 21-9
4. (Tie) Alabama 8-6 SEC, 19-9
4. (Tie) Tennessee 8-6 SEC, 16-13
6. LSU 7-7 SEC, 17-11
7. Ole Miss 7-8 SEC, 17-12
8. Mississippi State 6-8 SEC, 19-10
9. Arkansas 6-9 SEC, 18-12
10. (Tie) Auburn 4-10 SEC, 14-14
11. (Tie) Georgia 4-10 SEC, 13-15
12. South Carolina 2-12 SEC, 10-18
Auburn at Alabama, 8 p.m., SEC Network
Mississippi State at South Carolina, 8 p.m., SEC Network
Tennessee at LSU, 9 p.m., CSS