Donovan challenges UF's mental toughness

Billy Donovan is concerned about the way his Gators get down about missed shots. AP Photo/Phil Sandlin

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- What bothered Florida coach Billy Donovan the most about the Gators’ loss at Kentucky on Tuesday wasn’t the Wildcats making 9-of-15 3-pointers.

Or the Gators making a season-low six 3-pointers and shooting a season-low 22.2 percent from 3-point range.

Or the Gators having just nine assists.

Donovan was upset most at why the Gators did, or did not do, all those things. It wasn’t a cohesive group on the floor, and that’s why they didn’t play well in Rupp Arena.

“I think we went into the game with fractured minds,” Donovan said as the eighth-ranked Gators (19-5, 7-2 SEC) began preparations for Saturday’s home game against Tennessee (12-12, 4-5). “I think we went in there where each guy wanted to do his part and to play well, and what happens is you’re playing the game as a group of individuals. Not with any bad intention, but you have to have, in that kind of environment against a really good team like that, five guys unified mentally in the game about what is going on, and I didn’t feel like that.

“I just thought we were disconnected.”

To show what he meant, Donovan pointed to the Ole Miss game. The Gators got down 20-4 early in the first half, and the Rebels made all seven of their 3-point attempts to lead by 10 at the break. The Gators kept playing within the framework of their offense, worked hard on defense, and didn’t get discouraged. They didn’t linger on missed shots or turnovers and instead concentrated on the next play. The result was 64-60 victory in Oxford.

None of that, however, happened against Kentucky.

The Gators brooded over every mistake and missed shot, and as a result weren’t thinking about what they were supposed to do. They didn’t rush back to help point guard Erving Walker when the Wildcats pressed him in the backcourt. They stood around on inbounds plays instead of setting screens or getting open.

“ I could feel it on the court,” guard Bradley Beal said. “You could see it in other guy’s faces as well, like you have guys who are afraid of missing shots so they won’t take another shot, or they’re so worried about the shot not going in that we all forget about the rest of the game on defense, rebounding and getting back in transition.”

When they did finally get something going by cutting UK’s halftime lead to eight points early in the second half, they wilted after the Wildcats responded with back-to-back 3-pointers to get the lead to 14 points.

“I didn’t like our mental resiliency and toughness when things were not going well,” Donovan said. “You’ve got to be mentally tougher than that and constantly find ways to do things to impact the outcome of the game.

“What really bled into being more of a problem is when things got hard, we were not like this [connected] like we needed to be together. There wasn’t any finger-pointing or guys blaming each other. It’s just like everybody kind of got into their own little thing.”

Moving past missed shots and mistakes has been a problem all season. The players -- because they are so conscientious, Donovan said -- brood about their mistakes instead of immediately putting them behind them. Missed shots bother them the most and they linger for a possession or two despite Donovan’s constant preaching that they have no control over whether shots fall or not once it leaves their hand. If they did, they’d make every shot they ever took.

“That’s our biggest issue, our mental approach to the game, basically, and not being able to move past adversity and trying to fight through it,” Beal said. “You just have to keep playing and keep moving on. If you miss a shot, like Coach D always said, you’ve got to move on to the next play.”

Their next chance to prove that they’re able to do that is against the Vols.