Florida stays calm, collected to rout Mizzou

ATLANTA -- Florida center Patric Young felt weird about things even before the opening tip Friday.

It wasn’t a desperate Missouri opponent that had him jittery, it was the SEC regular-season champions trophy that commissioner Mike Slive presented to the Gators.

“It’s weird to be awarded with a trophy before a game you have to play,” Young said.

Twenty minutes of playing time later and Young felt even more weird, as No. 1 Florida -- riding a school-record 23 straight wins -- was tied with Missouri at 29 and looked completely out of sync. There was no energy or passion, and a handful of uncharacteristic Gators mistakes kept what should have been an overmatched Missouri team in the game.

But as the Gators have been prone to do during such a special season, they regrouped, relied on veteran leadership, and calmed their nerves with a 72-49 rout of the Tigers in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. It would have been so easy for the Gators, who have all but clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, to lie down and get some rest before the Big Dance.

It would have been easy for them to panic against a team that needed this win. But after leading scorer Casey Prather, Young (the SEC Defensive Player of the Year) and valuable big man Will Yeguete combined to shoot a paltry 1-for-7 from the field with six points in the first half, the Gators stayed calm before getting hot in the second half.

“We never really panic when we’re in these situations,” said Young, who finished with nine points. “Panicking is the worst thing you can do. We just think about what’s next, how can we get out of this slump or whatever funk we’re going in, and pick it up on the defensive end because that’s the side we’re the most consistent at.

“We have a veteran group of guys … any situation we’re in we’re going to push through and persevere.”

The Gators, experienced with four senior starters, went to work with a 7-0 run to start the second half but put the game away with a 12-0 run midway through the second frame that was created when they started working together.

The first half was muddled by careless possessions, lazy shot attempts and soft play inside. With about 10 minutes remaining in the second half, however, the Gators utilized each other and wore Missouri down.

They became a team again, and, of course, it started with two vets.

First, Yeguete flicked in an easy layup off a nice dish from guard Kasey Hill to give Florida a 40-36 lead with 10:04 left. Then, the real orange-and-blue avalanche started when senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin stole an inbounds pass and then threw it in to Yeguete while falling out of bounds. Yeguete then found Wilbekin in the corner, where he nailed a monster 3-pointer that electrified both Florida’s team and a small contingent of Gators fans behind UF’s bench inside the Georgia Dome.

“If they were going to give me space, I was going to take it,” said Wilbekin, who finished with 15 points and went 5-of-6 beyond the arc.

From there, he and the Gators continued to take it. Their defense smothered an exhausted and frustrated Mizzou team -- which shot just 31.6 percent in the second half -- and their offense found the shooting edge. The Gators hit 4-of-5 shots during their run and missed just one shot after, closing the game hitting eight straight.

Just to make sure Mizzou had no prayer of any sort of miraculous comeback, four of the Gators' last nine buckets were 3-pointers.

“I think we have got a group that is pretty cerebral,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said of his team, which shot just 34.6 percent in the first half. “You can talk about things that we need to change or adjust, and they're pretty good at doing that.”

When a team outscores an opponent 43-20 in the second half, it has made a pretty strong statement about making a second-half adjustment.

The Gators have done that all season. It’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and will likely leave Atlanta with the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. This team has had ugly first halves before but has the maturity to forgive and forget. The frustration that lingered during the first half of Friday’s game vanished when the second half began.

There are still free throw issues (the Gators made only 10-of-20), and sleeping in the first half could always catch up with them against the better teams.

“Maybe we just weren’t ready to believe this game,” Young said. “I think we were more ready for Missouri to lay down and just be like, ‘Oh, they’re going to win this game.’”

It appears that this attitude forced Florida to wake up. The kind of spark the Gators got Friday won’t always be there, but maybe a lull during this impressive run is what this team needed after making things look so easy for most of the season.

“Whoever we play tomorrow, we’re going to have to come out better than we did today -- more energy, more passion, more fire -- and be focused and locked in on defense, and the offense will take care of itself,” guard Michael Frazier II said.