Column: Florida trip a fail for Holton-less Mountaineers

Florida Gators fans cheer during Saturday’s 88-71 upset win over No. 9 West Virginia at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.



GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Never mind the graceless, white exterior that resembles a water-treatment facility. Inside, where it matters, the O’Connell Center packed ample basketball life Saturday. Fans leaned over the railings close enough to taunt players with their shakers and students arm-chomped like it was the national championship heydays of 2006-2007.

Until approximately noon, we presumed ninth-ranked West Virginia was this year’s contestant with championship potential. That presumption began shifting 11 seconds after tipoff when Dorian Finney-Smith sank the first of his five 3s.

Before the first media timeout, Florida buried two more 3s to lead 11-2. By the 9 minute mark, it stood 31-15 and the O-Dome became an Oh-No proposition for the Mountaineers.

The visitors were supposed to be tougher, yet the only time they showed it was reeling off 12 unanswered to tighten the margin to 31-27. The visitors were supposed to be deeper, yet the Gators reserves countered to spark a 14-3 end-of-half run that created a lasting separation.

Both teams were absent starting forwards—Justin Leon from a blow to the head, Jonathan Holton for not using his—and no doubt West Virginia missed its guy more. As Holton began what is believed to be a three-game suspension, his teammates didn’t compile their usual flurry of deflections and forced only 14 turnovers—the second-fewest this season.

Both teams were absent starting forwards—Justin Leon from a blow to the head, Jonathan Holton for not using his—and no doubt West Virginia missed its guy more.

“Without Jon, we miss energy,” said Devin Williams. “He’s somebody I know who’s going to go out there and compete.”

“That’s the head of the press,” said guard Tarik Phillip, “but we’ve got to step up and fill in the void.”

Instead Florida filled a void after guard Kasey Hill had his nose broken on a first-half elbow Daxter Miles. In stepped struggling redshirt freshman Brandone Francis-Ramirez, a kid who strongly considered signing with WVU two years ago. He was 5-of-40 on 3s this season before vexing West Virginia by making all three of his tries Saturday.

“Guy who comes into the game shooting 13 percent?” said Mountaineers sixth man Jaysean Paige. “Watching film and all the studying, there are guys you plays as shooters and guys you play as drivers, and some of the drivers were knocking down shots. That hurts.”

The fractured nose hurt Hill, though not enough to prevent him from playing 13 minutes in the second half. That wasn’t the only facet proving the Gators weren’t intimidated. Officials and coaches converged to separated the teams during pregame warmups after West Virginia players huddled on the Florida side of the court.

“It got us fired up,” said Finney-Smith, who charged up his teammates before matching his season high of 24 points.

“We were standing there and they were in a circle and they just backed into us,” said Gators guard Chris Chiozza. “Dorian got on us. He said, ’Don’t let them come into our house and punk us like that.’”

Florida coach Mike White didn’t like his team characterizing the skirmish as a motivational moment: “It shouldn’t take a bunch of jibber-jabber to get you going.”

Otherwise, the baby-faced boss saw only good omens from his Gators, which allowed the home fans a chance to jibber-jabber as West Virginia players left the court.

A Florida student yelled down at them, “This is what you get in the S-E-C, baby!”

Most of the Big 12 can laugh off that comment after Saturday’s 7-3 record in the conference challenge. But inside the O-Dome, the Mountaineers had to take their medicine, and now the question becomes whether they can get well against Iowa State and Baylor without Holton.

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