GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A close call against Kentucky could be just what the Florida Gators needed.
Coach Billy Donovan’s senior-led team has remained remarkably grounded during its 26-game winning streak and ascension to No. 1 in the national rankings.
But the expectations and distractions have been nothing compared with what is ahead during the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s the biggest stage in college basketball,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
And the Gators — the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance — are the belle of the ball.
Florida opens NCAA Tournament play at 4:10 p.m. Thursday in Orlando’s Amway Center against the winner of Tuesday’s first-round game between Albany (18-4) and Mount St. Mary’s (16-16).
The game is sure to be a warm-up for the Gators (32-2). But once Florida advances to the round of 32 — against the Pittsburgh-Colorado winner — and beyond, Sunday’s 61-60 victory in the SEC Tournament title game against Kentucky could come in handy.
The Gators nearly coughed up a 15-point lead due to shaky free-throw shooting, questionable shot selection and defensive gaffes by the team’s young reserves. When UF returns to the court on Tuesday after a well-earned rest Monday, it will have plenty to focus on while waiting to learn Thursday’s opponent.
The Gators missed 10 of 17 free throws against Kentucky, including the front ends of two one-and-one situations in the final 25 seconds. The Gators finished the SEC Tournament 27 of 54 and shot 66.6 percent from the foul line this season.
“We’ve got to do a better job there,” Donovan said.
Offensive execution is another area that needs attention.
As the Wildcats erased the Gators’ lead during the final 11 minutes, UF suffered a scoreless stretch of nearly five minutes. Donovan said fatigue was a factor.
The Gators won closes games against Missouri and Tennessee to reach the final, while Kentucky coasted by LSU and Georgia.
Donovan said leading scorer Casey Prather sat out the final minute because he was “gassed.” Prather is an excellent slasher, yet missed two jump shots and committed a turnover during the final 10 minutes.
Wilbekin came up short on a pair of 3-pointers during the scoring drought, but he did make a critical layup with 5:05 remaining to give UF a 59-53 lead. He ended up playing 38 minutes after averaging 29.8 in the previous four games.
“You really have no choice,” Donovan said. “You’re in a championship game.”
Four fouls by freshman point guard Kasey Hill limited him to 16 minutes.
Defensive lapses by sophomore Devon Walker limited him to seven minutes. Meanwhile, 6-foot-11 freshman Chris Walker made the most of his three minutes against Kentucky (five points, two rebounds) but has not earned Donovan’s trust as a defender in critical situations.
Of Hill and the two Walkers, Donovan said, “Their defensive discipline, their defensive intensity, how hard they compete and play, would be an area that continually needs to be raised.”
Donovan, who was named SEC coach of the year Monday by The Associated Press, does not have to worry about his four seniors’ intensity level after three consecutive losses in the Elite Eight.
Wilbekin, who was named SEC player of the year by AP, and his teammates know exactly what needs their attention on and off the court.
“It doesn’t matter what your ranking is or how much hype you have or who picked who to win,” Wilbekin said. “It’s going to be determined by the players and the coaches on the floor.”
Wilbekin and Prather were named first-team All-SEC by AP, while center Patric Young was named second team. ... Donovan earned a $50,000 bonus for the top-ranked Gators finishing in the top 10 in Monday’s final AP top 25 poll and $25,000 for coach of the year honors. He now has earned $187,500 in bonuses this season, including $37,500 for UF making the NCAA Tournament.