GAINESVILLE, Fla. — When Florida’s 1989 SEC title team is honored at halftime of the top-ranked Gators’ matchup with LSU on Saturday, coach Billy Donovan should take a bow himself.
Before he arrived 18 seasons ago, the ‘89 squad was the Gators’ lone SEC champion in men’s basketball. UF has added six more titles under Donovan, including three during the past four seasons.
The Gators (26-2, 15-0 SEC) clinched the conference title with more than a week to go when Arkansas won at Kentucky on Thursday night.
“What these guys have done this year, I’m really, really proud of them,” Donovan said Friday. “I still think there’s more out there in front of us that we have a chance and opportunity to go out and try to chase. But I am proud . . . not just for this group but for the groups before them.
“To me, competing and playing for championships is a big deal.”
With another conference title in hand, Donovan and the Gators will give chase to titles that have been much more elusive.
The SEC champion Gators lost in the conference tournament finals in 2011 and 2013. Florida will open SEC Tournament play at 1 p.m. March 14 once again as the No. 1 seed.
After that, the Gators will look erase some of the disappointment of three straight losses in the Elite Eight.
“It’s nice,” shooting guard Michael Frazier II said of the SEC title. “We worked for it. But at the same time, we’re trying to chase greatness. We’re not settling for this.”
The Gators have won 20 games in a row, but the past three wins have been by a total of 12 points. Tuesday’s 57-54 win at Vanderbilt came down to the final seconds.
UF is 4-1 in games decided on the final possession. While that is a good sign for a team that was 0-6 in games decided by six points or fewer last season, the close calls also are a cause for concern.
“It’s showing we have what it takes to pull games out in the end,” Frazier said. “But at the same time, we need to do a better job of executing and playing better down the stretch, coming out with intensity, better focus at the beginning of games.”
The Gators have won a school-record 30 games at home, but trailed during their last two games at the O’Connell Center before pulling ahead late to beat Auburn and Missouri.
LSU (17-10, 8-7) has lost six straight road games, yet nearly won last Saturday at Kentucky, losing a 77-76 in overtime.
Tigers’ 6-foot-9 junior Johnny O’Bryant (15.5 points per game, 7.8 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-8 freshman Jordan Mickey (13.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg) will test the Gators’ interior defense and could cause foul trouble for center Patric Young.
“Their team has gotten drastically bigger, stronger and more physical,” Donovan said. “Our ability to play post defense is critical, our ability to rebound the ball is critical.”
LSU point guard Anthony Hickey, a 5-foot-11 junior, leads the SEC in assist-to-turnovers ratio and runs an Tigers’ attack averaging 77.3 points. Hickey also spearheads a defense averaging more than eight steals.
With three SEC games to go, Donovan is looking for improvement in many areas. One is the Gators’ inability to score more points and stretch leads since a 69-36 rout of Texas A&M on Feb. 1.
“That’s an area I think we can get better at, in terms of maintaining a level of consistency play-wise and not having some wasted possessions on offense,” Donovan said.
Dorian Finney-Smith’s 19-point night at Vanderbilt — just his second time in double figures during the past 12 games — could add another scorer to the mix. The sophomore forward hopes it is the beginning of something for a team that has not even started to reach its goals.
“We’re just trying to strive for greatness,” he said. “We’re thinking about bigger things.”