Florida's Prather steps in, steps up

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Casey Prather left the Florida locker room after the Gators’ 69-52 victory over Kentucky with a small red bump on his lower lip near the corner of his mouth.

That wasn’t a lot of damage for the 6-foot-6 swingman despite an evening of playing inside against the nation’s top shot-blocker and a 7-footer. The Gators hope he can hold up that well throughout the rest of the regular season.

That’s pretty much the only way UF can weather the loss of Will Yeguete and put itself in position to make another deep NCAA tournament run.

"It [stepping in for Yeguete] wasn’t really in the back of my mind," Prather said after scoring 12 points, grabbing three rebounds, blocking two shots, and dishing out two assists. "I would just say I was trying to give the team a big boost, big energy boost, and so I was just glad to help the team out any way I could."

The 6-7 Yeguete -- the Gators’ second-leading rebounder, best post defender, and the key to UF’s full-court press -- underwent surgery last Friday to clean out loose bodies in his right knee. Replacing part of Yeguete’s production fell to Prather, and he has embraced the challenge. He had 12 points and five rebounds in the Gators’ rout of Mississippi State last Saturday, but the Bulldogs sit in the SEC’s cellar and have won just seven games. It was going to be a much bigger task to do it against Kentucky and 6-10 Nerlens Noel, the nation’s leading shot-blocker (4.5 per game), and 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein.

Prather not only held his own, he drew three charges and had a big first half to help the Gators rally from a slow start. With Erik Murphy on the bench for much of the first half with two fouls, Prather scored eight points -- two of which came on a dunk in front of Cauley-Stein.

"It's just a matter of confidence with that guy," UF center Patric Young said. "Because, I know he can do that day in and day out. He's just really athletic with really active hands. It was a night where he could show what he can do."

Prather has had limited opportunities to do that in his three seasons. He had trouble getting off the bench because he turned the ball over too much and just didn’t fit in the backcourt. He also has battled injuries throughout his career, including two concussions and a sprained ankle this season. He has played well in spurts -- he had 14 points in an NCAA tournament victory over Virginia last season -- but struggled with consistency.

Florida coach Billy Donovan, though, challenged Prather after Yeguete’s injury, and so far he has responded the way Donovan wanted.

And Prather relishes the task.

"I kind of like the challenge because I’m not as strong as them, or tall as them [inside], so I just take the challenge and try to use my quickness to my advantage," he said. "I like being able to just help the team. Coach challenged me so I had to just take it on to myself as a challenge."

The key will be Prather duplicating what he did against Kentucky -- not necessarily the points, but his defensive effort and work on the boards -- the rest of the regular season, beginning with Saturday’s game at Auburn. The hope is Yeguete will be able to return for the SEC tournament March 13-17.

After the past two games, he’s got his teammates’ confidence.

"I commend Casey a lot because he had a lot of bumpy roads since he’s been here and I feel like this is his opportunity to step up and he’s taking advantage of that," guard Mike Rosario said. "And I commend him because he never lost sight of getting better every day. And even though he went through his little injuries and he missed a couple games, he bounced back for us, especially when we needed him to. That shows a lot about his character and how much he cares about the team"