Florida Gators Rely on Seniors to Outlast Vanderbilt, Remain No. 1

By Brad Stephens
Kim Klement – USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators went into Nashville to face the Vanderbilt Commodores with a brand new No. 1 ranking and all the media hype surrounding it. Head coach Billy Donovan played it down before the game.

“It means that some teams in front of us lost,” Donovan told the media. “It means that we obviously were given that ranking. But whether we’re 15, 2, 1, not ranked, we’ve got to play against Vanderbilt.”

The Gators took Vanderbilt’s best shot, as per the usual for a No. 1 team. However, the Gators used relentless full-court defense and a strong inside game to come away with a 57 -54 victory. Florida grabbed 13 offensive rebounds and forced 16 turnovers, as Vanderbilt had trouble inbounding the ball against the swarming defense from the men in orange and blue.

In the waning minutes, the Commodores made a run to pull within one, but the Gators maintained their poise. This poise under pressure can be attributed to the senior group of Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, Patric Young and Casey Prather. In a game that has become famous for “one and dones,” these four-year players have bided their time and have quietly become the best team in college basketball.

Florida is now 26-2 and are a perfect 15-0 in SEC play. Some of these games have been very close and the Gators have been pushed to the limit, especially in the last week. Playing away from home twice in four days could have spelled disaster, but the experience of this group came through with a flourish.

Wilbekin has been the floor general all season and this was on display against Vanderbilt, distributing the ball all night with only one turnover. It was his ability to stretch the Commodore defense and find sophomore Dorian Finney-Smith for the three-pointer that would put the game out of reach. He is not flashy, but a more steady point guard will not be found in the entire country. Wilbekin is the odds-on favorite to win SEC Player of the Year and if he continues his tough play, he will hoist the trophy at the end of the season.

Young (6-foot-9, 240 pounds) has used his superior size and strength to dominate the paint, averaging over six rebounds and 10 points per game. He chisels space in the lane and keeps the ball alive on the offensive glass. He grabbed six offensive rebounds and muscled his way past Vandy’s frontcourt for 12 points. Yeguete’s long frame and athleticism (6-foot-8, 230 pounds) was used to close off Vanderbilt’s inbound passing lane when the Gators pressed, and many of the turnovers can be attributed to his aggressiveness. Prather is the team’s leading scorer. Although he had an off-night in Nashville, he was able to lead the team in steals with four.

The Gators use a collective effort from these “old kids on the block” every week to churn out wins. It may not be pretty and these guys may not shine on the next level, but they are peaking and the timing could not be better. The Gators are taking on all comers, going 12 rounds and coming out with their fists raised every time. The SEC and the entire country has been put on notice. If Donovan’s squad continues to find ways to rely on these seniors and their stellar play, their fists will keep raising in April.

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