Florida suffered a disheartening loss to a sub-.500 team in its last game, and the Gators won’t exactly be facing weak opponents in their final two contests as they try to secure a first-round bye in the SEC tournament.
Florida can clinch second place in the conference Tuesday night by winning at Vanderbilt, which is coming off a defeat to top-ranked Kentucky - the squad the No. 16 Gators face in their regular-season finale.
The Gators (22-7, 10-4) had won three in a row and 10 of 12 going into their road matchup with Georgia on Saturday. Florida was 15-2 in its last 17 against the Bulldogs but never led in falling 76-62 to a team that had dropped three in a row and came in last in the SEC in scoring.
Coach Billy Donovan held out point guard Erving Walker for nearly 6 minutes of the second half before the school’s career assists leader returned to the floor. Walker had 14 points but shot 4 of 11 and managed one assist.
“It’s not all on him to score and get all the assists and everything else, but I think as a senior you would think he would want to take that responsibility a little bit and show that kind of passion considering that he’s got two regular-season games left in his career,” Donovan said. “But he didn’t do that.
“I just felt like his energy wasn’t where it needed to be. He wasn’t playing as passionately as I thought he needed to be, and I just thought I’d give some other guys a chance.”
Donovan also gave starting forward Erik Murphy lots of time on the bench. The junior, averaging 9.9 points, scored two on 1-for-6 shooting and has totaled nine points in the last two games.
“Sometimes to coach with these guys, I feel like I’m grabbing these guys by the back of their shirts and I’m pulling them up a hill all the time,” Donovan said.
Florida’s lack of intensity comes at a bad time. The Gators can secure one of the four byes with a win over Vanderbilt (20-9, 9-5), but a defeat and a season-ending home matchup with the Wildcats could result in Florida heading into the conference tournament on a three-game skid.
As with Georgia, the Gators’ recent history against the Commodores is encouraging. They’ve won four in a row in the series and two of the last three road meetings.
Florida beat then-No. 25 Vanderbilt 73-65 on Feb. 4, getting 18 points from Kenny Boynton and 16 from Bradley Beal. The Commodores’ Jeffrey Taylor had 25 points to lead all scorers.
Taylor had another strong game Saturday at Kentucky, scoring 19 points, but Vanderbilt fell 83-74 after leading by one at halftime.
John Jenkins, who had averaged 25.0 points in his previous three games and came in as the reigning SEC player of the week, scored 18 but was 6 of 18 from the field. Vanderbilt made a run and pulled to within one with 4:22 left but couldn’t take the lead against an opponent that has won 20 in a row since its one loss.
“I thought our guys really showed some courage coming back,” coach Kevin Stallings said.
Taylor has averaged 20.3 points in his last three games against Florida, but Vanderbilt may have to shoot better from 3-point range if it wants to snap its skid in the series.
The Commodores have made 26.3 percent (26 of 99) from beyond the arc in the last four matchups since going 10 for 20 in their most recent win over the Gators on March 2, 2010. They haven’t been particularly good on 3s in their last two contests, hitting 11 for 34.
Florida has gone 22 of 45 from beyond the arc in the most recent two meetings with Vanderbilt.