Gator Basketball Comes Up Short at Vandy, Drops Second in a Row
The listless and lifeless performance Saturday in a double-digit road loss at struggling Georgia was a low point in Florida coach Billy Donovan’s career.
“Maybe as disappointed as I’ve ever been as a coach walking off the floor,” Donovan said late Tuesday, referencing the defeat once again for context. “I would say I felt totally opposite here tonight. I thought we competed. I thought we played hard against a very, very good team.”
The end result, however, was the same. A loss.
Vanderbilt junior guard John Jenkins scored 22 points, nailing his first six 3-point shots of the night, and the Commodores held off a hard charge by the 16th-ranked Gators before seizing command and finishing off a 77-67 victory before 14,316 at sold-out Memorial Gym.
Make that two straight losses for Florida (22-8, 10-5), with a regular-season finale looming Sunday against No. 1-ranked Kentucky at the O’Connell Center. The Gators need to win that game to lock up the second overall seed in the Southeastern Conference Tournament after Vandy (21-9, 10-5) pulled into a tie for that spot.
“We definitely had the effort tonight. but we’re supposed to have that every night,” senior point guard Erving Walker said. “Right now, that doesn’t really count for much.”
The Gators put themselves in position to make it count for a lot, but the Commodores just as quickly forced them back with timely shooting, mostly from Jenkins (7-for-10 overall), but also from forward Jeffrey Taylor (18 points on 4-for-8 from distance) and center Festus Ezeli (11 points), the two of whom celebrated their Senior Night and final home game in style.
UF was led by freshman Bradley Beal’s 16 points and five rebounds. Walker added 15, including eight straight during a critical run late in the first half that pulled the Gators back in a game they trailed by 12 early on.
That spree from Walker was a pleasant sight for Donovan and his team. Walker and his stoic demeanor were specific targets of the coach’s ire after the loss in Athens, Ga.
“When he plays locked in and really, really focused, it charges our team up, it gives our team confidence and a lot of energy,” Donovan said. “When he’s not locked in and he’s non-verbal, our team is looking for direction -- and there is no direction. I thought our guys huddled better today, they were more focused and I think Erving had a lot to do with that.”
The Commodores scored the game’s first seven points and led 19-7 midway through the first half before the Gators found some rhythm. UF hit just three of its first 10 shots, then seven of its first 22, but Walker went on his rampage -- it started with a four-point play -- to pull the Gators within a point with just under two minutes to go in the half.
Scottie Wilbekin’s 3-pointer tied the game at 27 with 1:08 to go, but Taylor’s trey gave the home team a 30-27 edge at the break.
“It’s never good to get down early, but we just kept on battling and got back in the game,” Walker said.
And while the Gators fell back by nine just three minutes into the second half, they went on a 20-10 tear, keyed by full-court pressure, and grabbed a 50-49 lead after Jenkins missed his first 3-point attempt of the game and it turned into a fast-break/transition dunk from backup Casey Prather.
After that, the lead changed six times inside the next two minutes, with Florida’s last at 55-54 after an Erik Murphy 3-pointer with 9:10 to go.
Taylor returned the favor at Vandy’s end and the Commodores never trailed again, even after the Gators twice drew within a point.
After Kenny Boynton hit a 3 to pull the Gators to 68-64 with 3:59 remaining, UF missed its final six field-goal attempts of the game.
“They hit us a bit there in the second half and we bounced right back,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said after his team shot 52.3 percent for the game, 50 percent (12-24) from distance and helped pad its NCAA Tournament resume. “It was a good night. It’s what you want a senior night to be. We played a good team and had to work to win.”
The Gators worked too, but a couple surrendered offensive rebounds and a few costly defensive breakdowns at pivotal moments proved the difference. More than once, Florida got caught in transition and lost either Jenkins or Taylor, who were able to spot up and make UF pay.
“That’s uncalled for. It’s not hard to keep track of where a guy is,” Donovan said. “We had a couple guys in the wrong spot and, all of a sudden, the guy’s left open.”
And just like that, the Gators have a two-game losing streak with college basketball’s version of the Miami Heat coming to town Sunday for Walker’s senior day and whatever postseason future the team may have after that.
“We played hard,” Walker said. “Now, we just have to move on.”