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Casey Prather’s star turn a boon for Florida

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NEW YORK — Billy Donovan said that this season, for his Gators, has been exhausting.

Between the injuries and the suspensions and the academic issues, the status of Florida’s roster has been a bigger story to date than their performance against teams like Wisconsin or UConn or Kansas.

“I almost keep looking around to see who is going to be walking through the door that I don’t know about,” the Florida head coach quipped after his No. 15 Gators held off No. 16 Memphis 77-75 in the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. “It’s been a real drain on our team emotionally.”

I can imagine. Scottie Wilbekin was suspended for five games, leaving Florida with a freshman, Kasey Hill, starting at the point. Hill sprained his ankle before Wilbekin returned, and when Wilbekin finally did make it back to the court, he sprained his ankle in a game at UConn that Hill was unable to suit up. Michael Frazier had mono. Dorian Finney-Smith was hurt. Eli Carter is redshirting. Chris Walker is just now getting back to practice, something that may never happen with Damontre Harris.

Did I miss anything? Probably.

The irony of it all? All of those off-the-floor issues and all of that time in the training room may have actually been the best thing that could have happened to the Gators this season. You see, while Donovan was busy trying to figure out who will run the point or what his front court rotation will look like or how the heck he is going to be able to scrimmage 5-on-5 in practice, senior Casey Prather has quietly turned into one of the nation’s best scorers.

“I am just trying to do what needs to be done for the team,” said Prather, a former top 50 recruit that’s humble enough to perfect every press conference cliché you can think of.

Prather entered the season having spent the past three seasons filling a role for the Gators (8-2). He was a defensive stopper. He was a finisher in transition. He was glue-guy, a blue-collar scrapper that picked up more floor-burns than he did buckets. As a junior, he averaged career-highs of 6.2 points and 17.1 minutes. He was an afterthought. In previews of Florida’s team, he was the guy that was mentioned in passing at the end, with a note about how he’ll add to Florida’s versatility and depth.

No one saw him becoming a leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year as we head towards the holidays.

Entering Tuesday night, Prather was averaging 18.2 points, 6.1 boards and 2.3 assists while shooting 61.3% from the floor and getting to the charity stripe 7.6 times per game. Against Memphis, Prather finished with 22 points and four boards, hitting 8-of-13 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the charity stripe. He scored the last eight points for the Gators, twice having plays run for him in the half court while knocking down four straight free throws in the final 80 seconds.

Again, no one saw this coming.

And I’m not sure it actually would have happened had the Gators been at full strength entering the season. Florida had a void to begin the year, and Prather simply stepped up and played his part. “I took it upon myself to be a leader,” he said, “to hold myself accountable for my mistakes and for my actions that helps us win.” The missing players “freed him up to evolve into this position,” Donovan said.

The difference in Prather isn’t that he has become a totally different player this season. He didn’t magically transform into Paul George during the offseason. He isn’t the second-coming of Kobe Bryant. No NBA scouts are going to be confusing Prather with Andrew Wiggins or Marcus Smart. It’s actually quite the opposite. Prather has learned to trust his ability, to embrace his strengths and take advantage of what he does best.

“Sometimes guys, when they get in there and want to have an opportunity to play at the next level and they’re 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, people say, ‘he’s got to shoot the ball better,'” Donovan said. “When he was a freshman and sophomore, he was so consumed with his jumpshot. That’s all he wanted to do. It was probably seven or eight things he did better than shoot the basketball. He’s not a high-volume three-point shooter. He slashes to the basket. He offensive rebounds. He gets on the break. He can go off the dribble. He can play off the bounce. He’s playing to his strengths instead of trying to prove he can overcome his weaknesses.”

“It’s the first time I feel like he’s playing with a clear head and a clear mind. ‘Ok, here’s who I am as a player. Here’s how I can take advantage of it.'”

According to Synergy, Prather had taken just seven jump shots on the season entering Tuesday night, with the rest of his field goals either coming at the rim, on post-ups, runners or in transition. I’d call that playing to his strengths.

And it came at a time where the Gators needed him the most.

Prather didn’t remake himself in the offseason. He simply took advantage of an opportunity, and Florida is currently reaping the benefits.

Because with Prather playing this way, the Gators are a legitimate title contender.

CBT Podcast: ESPN’s Dana O’Neil discusses her book about Villanova

Villanova head coach Jay Wright celebrates as he cuts down the net after the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game against North Carolina, Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. Villanova won 77-74. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
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On today’s podcast, I was joined by ESPN’s Dana O’Neil, one of my personal favorite writers who has penned a book chronicling how Jay Wright was able to build the Villanova program into a national title winner.

Dana spent seven years as a beat-writer for the Wildcats before making the move to ESPN, and she has some great stories about how the book came together and, frankly, how that Villanova team came together.

It’s a little “Inside Baseball”, but it was a fun conversation about a book that you know is going to be really good.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and Audioboom

VIDEO: World War II Veteran play anthem on harmonica before Pearl Harbor Invitational

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Peter DuPre’, a veteran of World War II, opened last night’s Pearl Harbor Invitational between Seton Hall and California with a moving rendition of the National Anthem, which he played on his harmonica.

Amaker becomes winningest coach at Harvard after 74-66 win.

SPOKANE, WA - MARCH 22:  Head coach Tommy Amaker talks to Siyani Chambers #1 of the Harvard Crimson in the first half against the Michigan State Spartans during the Third Round of the 2014 NCAA Basketball Tournament at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena on March 22, 2014 in Spokane, Washington.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
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BOSTON (AP) Harvard’s Tommy Amaker still feels the influence that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski provided. It’s helped lead him through a successful coaching career.

Amaker became the winningest coach in Harvard history on Wednesday night when Chris Lewis scored a season-high 22 points and Seth Towns had 18 to lead the Crimson to a 74-66 road victory over local rival Boston College.

It was Amaker’s 179th win in his 10th season, moving him ahead of his predecessor, Frank Sullivan (178-245), who was the coach from 1991-2007.

“I’ll communicate with coach for sure,” Amaker said. “He has so many different guys that he likes to keep track of. I don’t want to be a burden in any way, but obviously his influence has been paramount. It’s been as big as it comes for me.

“I’ve always thought of him as an amazing teacher, leader. I’ve always tried emulate some of the things he’s taught through the years.”

A star guard with the Blue Devils from 1983-87, the 52-year-old Amaker felt he could take Harvard to a successful level that’s led to five Ivy League titles in the past six seasons.

“We always thought if we could build our basketball program to go along with the things that happen at Harvard, we would feel good about ourselves, and we’ve done that,” he said.

It was the third straight victory for Harvard (4-4).

Jerome Robinson led Boston College (4-4) with 25 points. A.J. Turner scored 13.

The Crimson looked dedicated to driving to the basket on most possessions from the start, collecting a number of easy looks when they shot near 60 percent in the opening minutes. It triggered a 13-2 spree that helped them open a 23-10 lead.

“The last couple of games I was encouraged of what we were doing defensively, but we took a step back,” BC coach Jim Christian said. “We’d played seven games. These guys have played a lot of minutes – bad defense is bad defense.”

The Crimson pushed their advantage to 39-21 after Bryce Aiken’s driving basket capped a 6-0 spurt.

The Eagles trailed by 19 points with just under 10 minutes to play, but made a late charge, closing the deficit to 69-60 on Robinson’s 3-pointer from the left corner.

Both teams then went nearly three minutes without a basket before Harvard closed it out.

BIG PICTURE

Harvard: The Crimson seemed to have figured out what type of team they have become after opening the season 1-3. They showed balance in a two-night span when they beat Northeastern on Tuesday and Boston College. On Tuesday, they scored only 18 points in the paint and they had 20 at halftime against the Eagles, finishing with 34.

“We’re constantly trying to preach that we set the tone and be the aggressor early,” Amaker said. “I just thought they responded very well and made the necessary plays.”

Boston College: The Eagles need to find some more consistent scoring to go along with Robinson. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard entered the game second in the Atlantic Coast Conference, averaging 20.1 per game.

REFLECTION

“I’m very proud of that,” Amaker said of the milestone. “I’m proud of our program and our team.”

PERFECT TEST

The Crimson looked at playing consecutive nights as a warm up to how things will be in conference play, when schools mostly compete on Fridays and Saturdays.

“We approached these two back-to-back games how we’d see Ivy League play,” said point guard Siyani Chambers, who had 11 assists. “We’re trying to figure out who we are.”

SERIES

BC leads the all-time series 34-16 and had won the last two meetings after losing six straight.

The two schools first met in the 1905-06 season when Harvard won 42-6.

UP NEXT

Harvard: At Houston of the American Athletic Conference on Friday.

Boston College: Hosts Hartford from the America East Conference Friday.

No. 8 Gonzaga throttles Washington

Gonzaga guard Nigel Williams-Goss, right, shoots while defended by Washington guard Markelle Fultz during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Spokane, Wash., Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)
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SPOKANE, Wash. — Nigel Williams-Goss scored 23 points as No. 8 Gonzaga beat poor-shooting Washington 98-71 on Wednesday night in a resumption of their cross-state rivalry.

Przemek Karnowski added 17 points and Jordan Mathews had 14 for Gonzaga (9-0), which dominated from the opening minutes.
Freshman Markelle Fultz had 25 points and 10 rebounds for Washington (4-4), which has lost three straight. The Huskies came in averaging 88 points per game.

NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster writes about how Fultz may be destined to relive Ben Simmons’ year at LSU in which the No. 1 NBA draft pick missed the NCAA tournament

Noah Dickerson had 12 points and 15 rebounds for Washington, which shot just 30 percent for the game. Gonzaga shot 53 percent.

Williams-Goss, who played for Washington before transferring to Gonzaga and becoming eligible this season, made 9 of 13 shots against his former team.

Johnathan Williams scored Gonzaga’s first three baskets and Mathews added consecutive 3-pointers as the Zags jumped to a 16-4 lead.

Mathews’ hit another 3-pointer as Gonzaga pushed the lead to 27-6. Washington made only two of its first 16 shots.

Gonzaga led 35-10, after shooting 73 percent from the field, while Washington made just four of its first 25 shots.

Mathews had 14 points as Gonzaga led 47-22 at halftime, after making 64 percent of its shots from the field. Washington shot just 21 percent (9 of 42) and missed all seven of its 3-point attempts. But the Huskies did have a 17-0 advantage in offensive rebounds at halftime.

Washington’s shooting picked up early in the second half, but so did Gonzaga’s and the Huskies could not make up any ground. Silas Melson’s 3-pointer lifted Gonzaga to a 68-34 lead.

The teams first played in 1910, and have played intermittently ever since. Washington ended the home-and-home series in 2006, after Gonzaga won eight of the previous nine games.

Washington and Gonzaga actually renewed their rivalry in the Bahamas last season in the first round of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, an 80-64 Gonzaga win.

Washington’s last victory in Spokane occurred in 1944.

The Huskies still lead the all-time series 29-16, with their last win in 2005.

BIG PICTURE

Washington: Fultz came in averaging 22.7 points per game, 13th in the nation and tops by a freshman, while four other Huskies score in double digits. Washington is third in the nation with 7.7 blocks per game. The Huskies seek to end a five-year drought in going to the NCAA Tournament.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have been to the NCAA Tournament every year since 1999. They last opened 9-0 in the 2013 season, before losing to Illinois. Six Zags are averaging at least 9 points per game, led by Josh Perkins at 13.1 ppg.

UP NEXT

Washington hosts Nevada on Sunday.

Gonzaga hosts Akron on Saturday.

No. 7 North Carolina holds off Davidson

North Carolina's Isaiah Hicks (4) dunks against Davidson during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. North Carolina won 83-74. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Justin Jackson buried shot after shot from behind the arc in the best performance of his career for No. 7 North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams didn’t have much to feel good about otherwise.

Jackson matched his career high with 27 points and hit a career-best seven 3-pointers to help the Tar Heels beat Davidson 83-74 on Wednesday night, though they struggled both to slow down high-scoring Wildcats guard Jack Gibbs and find much of a rhythm with top point guard Joel Berry II sidelined by a sprained left ankle.

“Well it’s been a lot of fun watching this basketball team at certain times this year,” Williams said. “It was not fun tonight.”

The Tar Heels (9-1) didn’t get in any kind of groove offensively, with the 6-foot-8 Jackson largely carrying the offense on a night when they got little production from the front line. He had shot 30 percent from 3-point range through his first two seasons and was up to 35 percent coming in before matching his previous high of four 3s by halftime.

“Confidence and stepping into it — I think that’s all it was,” Jackson said. “I knew I had to step up more but then whenever I got my shots, I just stepped into it like it was another shot.”

 

But UNC shot just 38 percent, while only Isaiah Hicks (13 points) and reserve Luke Maye (career-high 10 points, all before halftime) reached double figures.

Gibbs — ranked seventh nationally by averaging 23.3 points — finished with 30 points for the Wildcats (5-3), who trailed by 16 midway through the second half before making a late push to get within three in the final 2 minutes.

But Kennedy Meeks answered with two free throws, then Hicks followed with two more after getting a big rebound in traffic with 52 seconds left to help UNC hang on.

“They made some good plays, they got some key rebounds,” Gibbs said of the final minutes. “They’ve got athletes and sometimes it’s tough to get those rebounds. Down the stretch, they made the plays and we didn’t.”

BIG PICTURE

Davidson: Gibbs is the kind of scorer that can scare any opponent when he gets hot, while Peyton Aldridge (22 points) provides his own matchup troubles. And with a veteran coach like Bob McKillop, this is the kind of team that scares big-name teams come tournament time.

“I loved the way they fought,” McKillop said.

UNC: The Tar Heels got a glimpse of life without arguably their top player in Berry. Nate Britt got the start and had six assists but missed all eight of his shots, while Seventh Woods and Stilman White (career-high six points) saw plenty of minutes at the point. But the Tar Heels missed Berry’s finish-through-contact toughness, leadership and scoring ability.

DEFENSIVE HELP

Gibbs and Aldridge combined to make 17 of 35 shots, with Gibbs hitting five 3-pointers.

“As teammates, we ‘ve got to do a better job of helping off and helping out on players like Gibbs,” Meeks said. “Like (Williams) probably said in the press conference, either we’re going to be a mediocre team or we’re going to be a good team. We’ve got to decide before it’s too late.”

CONFETTI?

The game was 5 seconds old when there was a brief stoppage due to falling confetti-like material fluttering to the court from the rafters of the Smith Center. Arena staffers swept it up and the game resumed within a minute or two.Team spokesman Matt Bowers said at halftime it was believed to be pieces of a padding used to absorb leaks near the ceiling.

UP NEXT

Davidson: The Wildcats get a 10-day break before playing their fifth power-conference opponent this year, facing No. 3 Kansas on Dec. 17 in Kansas City, Missouri.

UNC: The Tar Heels begin a two-game set with Southeastern Conference opponents, first by hosting Tennessee on Sunday before facing No. 6 Kentucky on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas.