No. 1 UF 79, LSU 61

Streaking Gators on a chase for ‘greatness’

 
 
 <span class="cutline_leadin">‘thinking about bigger things’ </span>UF forward Dorian Finney-Smith slams home two of his 16 points during Saturday’s game against LSU in Gainesville.
‘thinking about bigger things’ UF forward Dorian Finney-Smith slams home two of his 16 points during Saturday’s game against LSU in Gainesville.
Phil Sandlin / AP

Miami Herald Writer

There was no post-game net-cutting ceremony. No premature celebrations.

For the top-ranked Gators, led by a quartet of seniors with glaring scars from three consecutive Elite Eight exits, a league championship was simply a stepping-stone in their quest for an elusive national title.

No. 1 Florida (27-2, 16-0 Southeastern Conference) throttled LSU (17-11, 8-8 SEC) 79-61 Saturday afternoon, but the Gators refused to commemorate their third outright league title (2011, 2013, 2014) in the past four years.

“Everybody on the team didn’t feel comfortable because we know we have more of a journey to go,” senior slasher Casey Prather said.

Added senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, UF’s bulldog leader and the potential front-runner for SEC player of the year, “We still have more to do. We’re not satisfied.”

The nation’s best team — winners of a school-record 21 games in a row and 31 consecutive victories inside the O’Connell Center — blitzed the Tigers from the start, jumping to an 8-0 lead and cruising the rest of the afternoon.

Florida, which led by as many as 29 and never trailed, ran LSU ragged with its relentless pressure defense (15 forced turnovers) and its offensive efficiency (18 assists on 30 made field goals).

The Gators drained a flurry of three-pointers (a season-high 13), with four scorers — Prather (14), Wilbekin (11), sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II (14), forward Dorian Finney-Smith (16) — finishing in double figures.

In face of all the noise, accolades and sudden bull’s-eye target, UF’s effort Saturday was close to its finest form to date in a season that includes wins over No. 5 Kansas, No. 17 Kentucky, No. 21 Memphis and an undefeated record in conference play.

The Gators are two wins away from a perfect (18-0) league slate — something never accomplished in SEC history.

“It says a lot about the team,” LSU coach Johnny Jones explained. “They’ve already clinched the championship, and for their guys to come out and play as motivated and hard as they did tonight. … When you have a senior team and guys are able to make plays like that and are used to winning great things can happen for you.”

Florida’s four seniors, its fauxhawked frontcourt of Patric Young and Will Yeguete, along with Wilbekin and Prather, have forged an identity built on experience, toughness, patience and poise.

It’s a deep group — backed by one of the nation’s elite shooters in Frazier and top sixth-man in Finney-Smith — not filled with potential lottery picks but quality college basketball players winning to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.

On Saturday, Florida coach Billy Donovan politely dismissed UF’s “rosy results,” saying its success is all in the past and he wants his team focused on the future.

“There’s still a lot of the season left for us,” said Donovan, calling a net-cutting ceremony “a distraction.”

Chasing greatness, a mission the Gators have pursued since the season began with multiple suspensions, injuries and a 12-game NCAA-mandated ban for McDonald’s All-American forward Chris Walker, isn’t some empty platitude.

Donovan’s message has been well received, absorbed and constantly echoed.

“Every play, moment by moment, every possession you’ve got to strive for greatness,” Finney-Smith said. “We’re thinking about bigger things.”

As the Gators finish the regular season and prepare for the one-and-done scenario of March Madness, Donovan wants his team to continue to play loose, fresh and confident.

“You want to be playing well this time of year,” Donovan said. “When you get to this point in time of the season, you don’t want to play like you’re trying to protect something, when you’re back on your heels, we don’t want to lose being No. 1 and we don’t want to lose at home and we want to keep the streak going.

“Once you get into trying to avoid things and trying to prevent things from happening, I think inevitably you get tight, you get frozen and you don’t play. The biggest thing for us that I’ve been trying to explain for our guys is there are things out there for us to chase.

“What are we going to chase? What are we going to go after? They’re chasing something right now. Tonight these guys broke the program single-season number of regular-season wins and to me that’s a significant milestone.”

Read more UF stories from the Miami Herald

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