The Florida Gators overcame a sluggish start on the road at Georgia Wednesday night before pulling away in the second half for their seventh straight victory 64-47. For twenty minutes Wednesday night the Gators were in a dogfight with the Bulldogs, all puns intended.
The Gators started slow finding themselves in an 11-2 deficit early in the first half. Point guard Scottie Wilbekin kept the Gators in the game early hitting his first 6 shots and scoring 13 first half points as the Gators went into halftime down 27-24, only the second time all season they trailed at halftime. The other time was the last time they lost, 8 games ago against Kansas State.
Starting center Patric Young and power forward Erik Murphy had combined for one basket in the first twenty minutes as the Bulldogs’ active defense played tight and physical keeping a body on them and a hand in their face. Besides Wilbekin, the Gators couldn’t seem to buy a shot or an offensive rebound in the first half.
But as has been the case all season, the Gators made adjustments at the half and opened the second half forcing three quick Georgia turnovers which they turned into six points off two three pointers by Wilbekin and Mike Rosario. The Gators went on a 13-2 run to open the half and they cruised from there to move to 15-2 on the season and 5-0 in the SEC.
“I thought our guys did an outstanding job in the second half defensively,” Donovan said. “That was the key. I thought, we got off to a good start, we made the first couple of points, we took the lead. We must have had four or five consecutive stops and that certainly was important and we were able to get a double digit lead.”
Behind his 13 first half points, Wilbekin led the Gators in scoring matching a career high with 17 going 7-9 from the field and adding three assists.
“Offensively he had it going from the get go. He definitely carried us,” Kenny Boynton said about Wilbekin.
His big scoring game wasn’t a surprise to Wilbekin as he expects to make shots when the defense forces him to take them.
“I just try to come out and do whatever the defense gives me,” Wilbekin said. “If they’re going to let me drive down the lane like that and not step up then I’m going to make the layup, but if they step up I’m always looking to pass to somebody.”
Shooting guard Kenny Boynton, still struggling from beyond the arc, finished with 14 points on 4-10 shooting from the field and 2-6 from three.
Erik Murphy, who was shut out in the first half, came back strong in the second finishing with 13 points going 50% (4-8) from the field and 60% (3-5) from outside the three point line. Will Yeguete still suffering from tendinitis in his knee was the Gators’ leading rebounder with 11. Once again the Bulldogs were led by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who finished with 16 points and 7 rebounds.
The Bulldogs were on fire from the perimeter in the first half going 6-11 from three point range while the Gators were only 1-9. The Gators stayed in the game on the basis of Scottie Wilbekin’s scoring and Georgia turnovers.
“If it wasn’t for the turnovers we forced in the first half we probably should have been by a much, much larger margin,” Donovan said. “I thought it was their nine turnovers and Wilbekin’s 13 points really kept us close in the game.”
The Gators, however, turned up the defensive intensity in the second half turning Georgia over, forcing the Bulldogs into poor shots late in the shot clock, and crashing the boards keeping them to one shot while pushing the ball up the floor and getting quick scores before the Bulldog defense could get set. The Gators forced 16 turnovers overall with 10 steals and scored 18 points off those turnovers.
“I thought our guys did an outstanding job in the second half defensively,” said Donovan. “That was the key. I thought, we got off to a good start, we made the first couple of points, we took the lead. We must have had four or five consecutive stops and that certainly was important and we were able to get a double digit lead.”
The Bulldogs plan was to throw the first punch and that’s exactly what they did. However, they couldn’t sustain it as the Gators superior depth and athleticism ultimately made the difference and the Gators cruised through the second half for their second victory over the Bulldogs in two weeks.
The Gators had lost in Athens late last season and that loss was certainly on the minds of the Gator players who understand the difficulty of playing on the road in the SEC. The early deficit notwithstanding the players knew they had to keep pushing.
“We knew what happened last year and we didn’t want that to happen again,’ according to Wilbekin. “So we just tried to push through. We got some steals in the press and got some fast break buckets and that kind of got the lead down a little bit.”
Next up the Gators face their second consecutive road game and third out of four when they head to Starkville, Mississippi to take on Mississippi State on Saturday night. Tip off is scheduled for 8 pm eastern and will be broadcast live on ESPN2.