NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt can only think of all the mistakes it made in allowing Florida to escape with a win in its first game at No. 1.
Gators coach Billy Donovan can only imagine just how good the Commodores would be if coach Kevin Stallings had all the players he expected this season.
Kyle Fuller missed a tying 3-pointer in the final seconds, and Dai-Jon Parker’s putback attempt missed as Florida pulled out a 57-54 win Tuesday night.
“We felt like we could have won that game if we hadn’t made mistakes, or even if I had hit that shot at the end to give us another chance,” Fuller said. “We know how good we are, and we just play within ourselves. We knew that this game could be close if we did our business. It just didn’t work out today.”
The Commodores (15-12, 7-8 Southeastern Conference) beat Florida 83-70 the last time the Gators came into Memorial Gym ranked No. 1, on Feb. 17, 2007. Stallings only has seven healthy scholarship players right now with two players suspended and a starting center out with a torn ACL. 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.”
Donovan said Vanderbilt would be in the thick of the SEC race if Stallings had his full team available and they still managed to push the Gators.
“A lot of times, teams have nothing to lose,” Donovan said. “It’s a great opportunity, great situation with a team coming into your building like that. . I thought (Stallings) did a great job coaching, and I thought he put his team in every position to win the game.”
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.
Dorian Finney-Smith scored 19 points, and Florida clinched at least a share of its second straight SEC title and seventh overall.
Patric Young added 12 points for the Gators (26-2, 15-0), 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 sure made it interesting trying to add another big win over a top-ranked Florida team. They 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 Scottie 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.