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Struggling Gators 'can't afford' to slack off
Fresh off a 10-point loss to LSU and facing two of its toughest rivals this week, the Florida basketball team finds itself at a critical juncture as it finishes the regular season.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published February 27, 2007
GAINESVILLE - Fresh off a 10-point loss to LSU and facing two of its toughest rivals this week, the Florida basketball team finds itself at a critical juncture as it finishes the regular season.
This is no time for fatigue or slacking off.
"Every team is coming at us like it's the last game of their life, so we can't afford to do that," senior reserve center Chris Richard said.
The Gators have lost two of three and struggled offensively during that span. Florida 25-4 plays at Tennessee (20-9) tonight in a nationally televised game, then closes out the regular season hosting Kentucky.
But as Florida heads into Thompson-Boling Arena, you won't hear coach Billy Donovan making excuses. Yes, the players may be mentally and physically fatigued. Yes, teams are playing forward Joakim Noah more aggressively. And yes, the Gators are getting everybody's best shot.
So what? Donovan says. The solution is quite simple.
"We have to play better," Donovan said Monday. "That's the biggest concern. There's a lot of factors you can look into and draw opinions and conclusions, but we're going to have to play better to have a chance to win against a team that's undefeated at home like Tennessee."
At least a lot better than of late.
In its past three games, Florida's backcourt has nearly shut down, placing pressure on the frontcourt of Noah, Richard and Al Horford. Against LSU on Saturday, Florida's guards didn't hit a field goal until less than five minutes remained in the game. In that stretch, junior guard Taurean Green is 4-of-21 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3-point range. Senior Lee Humphrey is 8-of-25 from the field and 6-of-20 from 3-point range.
But Donovan insists shoddy defense has hampered the team most. In losses to LSU and Vanderbilt, the Gators allowed 51 and 57 percent shooting from the field, respectively.
"I don't think we've played the best we can play on the defensive end of the floor, and that was a part of our team last year I thought was really special and could carry our team," Donovan said. "If you look at the last three or four games, teams are shooting 38-39 percent from the 3-point line, and we were the team in the SEC that was holding teams to 27-28 percent."
The Gators face a Vols team shooting 35 percent from 3-point range, led by guard Chris Lofton, who averages 20.8 points and is a 42 percent 3-point shooter.
"He's got such deep range that he's probably one of the better challenged shotmakers I've seen," Donovan said.
Vols coach Bruce Pearl said he's expecting a dogfight.
"We have to play not just good but great, not just great but outstanding, not just outstanding but probably the best game of our lives," Pearl said. "Florida is the defending national champion. They've lost a game or two down the stretch, but their talent level is incredible. It's going to take a great effort."
And this is eerily similar to where the Gators found themselves last season. Florida lost three straight in mid February, then finished with an 11-game winning streak. Richard said last week that maybe the team needed to regain the mentality of the underdog, a role the Gators could be earning already.
"A few of us (Sunday) saw the predictions of the (NCAA Tournament) seedings, and we weren't even mentioned as a 1 seed, and I thought that was a little bit disrespectful as far as the things we've done so far this year," he said. "We lost a few games late, but I don't think that's really enough to just count us out. But hopefully ... that will just give us a little bit more drive to finish up these last two games strong and go out and win the SEC tournament and go out and get that 1 seed."
Notable: The Gators try to rebound from Saturday's loss at LSU in an arena that hasn't been kind. Florida has lost three of four in Knoxville, including last season when the Gators could have taken over the No. 1 spot in the nation but lost 80-76 in front of a sellout crowd. The Vols have won five of six.