NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Florida coach Billy Donovan knows his newly top-ranked Gators are an even bigger target for opponents. They just keep finding ways to finish off victories.
Dorian Finney-Smith scored 19 points, and Florida, playing its first game at No. 1, held off Vanderbilt 57-54 on Tuesday night to clinch at least a share of its second straight Southeastern Conference title and seventh overall.
The Gators are 13-2 in games decided by single digits after losing all six last season, and Donovan said their margin for error is not very big.
“We’re not an overly talented team, we’re just not,” Donovan said. “And what these guys have done up to this point in time it really has been pretty remarkable in my opinion. They’ve done a really good job. ... But I think sometimes when you see a team with a high ranking you think dominance, you think they just blow everybody out. That’s not what we are or who we are.”
Patric Young added 12 points for the Gators (26-2, 15-0 SEC), who continued the best season in school history by winning their 20th straight game, and they will have a chance to claim their third SEC title in four years all to themselves with a win against LSU on Saturday.
“Humbling to know that we can come from where we were not being able to do it last year and be able to finish out these close games this year,” Young said.
The Commodores (15-12, 7-8) beat Florida 83-70 the last time the Gators came into Memorial Gym ranked No. 1, on Feb. 17, 2007. Coach Kevin Stallings only has seven healthy scholarship players right now, and they proved no match for Florida’s smothering defense and much deeper bench.
“We did a good job, but that’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country,” Stallings said. “They’ve got weapons. They throw it to the open guy, and that guy usually delivers. That’s why they’ve lost two games.”
The Commodores sure made it interesting.
Kyle Fuller missed a tying 3 in the final seconds when Luke Kornet was guarded closely by Young, and Dai-Jon Parker missed a putback attempt.
“Coach drew up a play for Luke to run a flare screen, but when he got it Patric was kind of on him,” said Fuller, who scored the final seven points for Vandy. “When I got it I thought I created enough space, but when it left my hand it just didn’t feel right.”
Rod Odom scored 12 points and Parker added 11 as Vanderbilt outshot Florida 48.8 percent (20 of 41) to 40.4 percent (21 of 52). The Commodores hit four of eight 3-point attempts in the second half to stay close.
The Commodores came in 8-16 all-time against top-ranked teams tapping into what they like to call Memorial magic in Nashville. The old gym wasn’t sold out Tuesday night, but fans certainly were as loud as they have been all season trying to urge Vanderbilt to an improbable upset.
Florida led 32-25 at halftime and pushed that out to 53-45 only to see Vanderbilt rally each time. Fuller’s three-point play with 3:16 remaining made it 53-50. Finney-Smith hit a free throw, then Vanderbilt forced a shot clock violation when Wilbekin’s desperate shot from long range banked off the backboard and rim. Fuller made two free throws with a minute left.
Finney-Smith got the ball wide open and knocked down a 3 with 30.6 seconds to go for the clinching basket. Finney-Smith had been in a slump, scoring in double digits only once in the past 11 games.
“I just shot the ball with confidence,” Finney-Smith said. “Usually, I throw it in for Patric, but the forward was holding for Pat so I could replace, we did a roll and replace, and I was wide open for 3.”
Fuller answered with a driving layup. Wilbekin dribbled away precious seconds before being fouled only to miss the front end of a 1-and-1. Vanderbilt took a timeout to set up a tying shot but couldn’t connect allowing Florida to avoid overtime.
Florida outrebounded Vanderbilt 32-26 and had a 13-1 scoring edge in second-chance points. The Gators’ bench also outscored the Commodores’ 25-11.
The Gators forced 11 of Vanderbilt’s 16 turnovers in the first half. Even as the Gators swarmed Vanderbilt defensively, pressing early and often, they couldn’t shut down the Commodores.
Florida scored 13 straight points to take the lead for good in the first half. Wilbekin’s jumper tied it up, then Casey Prather stole the ball and dunked to put Florida ahead to stay at 13-11 with 11:52 to go. Michael Frazier hit consecutive 3s to cap the spurt and put the Gators up 22-11 and 32-25 at halftime.