After Florida’s 58-40 win against Savannah State on Nov. 20, coach Billy Donovan praised UF’s defense. On Friday, Donovan’s admiration had faded.

Despite holding UCF to 38.5 percent shooting in the first half, Florida’s defense let up in the second half, allowing a 57.1 percent clip from the field. The Knights shot 80 percent behind the three-point line.

“Our energy (and) our effort defensively in the first half enabled us to turn them over, enabled us to get the fast break (and) enabled us to play really, really fast,” Donovan said following Florida’s 79-66 win. “The second half was a completely opposite half for us. … Our effort in the first half in relationship to the second half was night and day.”

Still, the Gators boast the top two-point percentage defense in the nation, holding opponents to just 33.9 percent shooting inside the arc.

Prior to Friday’s game, Florida held opponents to 31 percent shooting. Even after allowing UCF to shoot 46.8 percent from the field, UF ranks ninth nationally with a 33.7 opponent shooting percentage.

Florida has also excelled at scoring off of turnovers.

The Gators have forced 83 turnovers and racked up 95 points off of turnovers in five games. Those 95 points account for 26.3 percent of UF’s scoring output this season.

Junior Scottie Wilbekin has spearheaded the Gators’ takeaway effort. The point guard has only seen action in three games, but he already leads Florida with eight steals.

“I love getting steals,” Wilbekin said. “I love playing defense, maybe more than I love playing offense. That’s just who I am.”

Donovan added: “He really, really, really defends, and I really trust him out there defensively. … His first two years of his career, he has not tried to score. He’s been more of a facilitator. He’s been more of a guy who’s just been a lockdown defender.”

Although the Gators struggled with two-point defense on Friday, Donovan is focused on the team’s ability to guard beyond the arc.

Florida ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in 2011-12 by allowing opponents to make 39.7 percent of their three-point attempts in SEC games. But the Gators are showing signs of improvement early this season, ranking sixth in the SEC by allowing 33.3 percent.

“We really have tried to make a focus on it, and our guys have done a good job to their credit up to this point and time,” Donovan said.

Although the Gators have already seen improvements in shooting percentage, the team’s rebounding numbers have not changed much from last season.

Donovan was worried about Florida’s ability to rebound coming into the season, saying the effort on the glass in UF’s exhibition game against Nebraska-Kearney was not good enough. Since then, the Gators have grabbed 70.7 percent of their defensive rebounding opportunities, which ranks 94th in the nation. Last season, Florida grabbed 69.7 percent of its opportunities, finishing 88th in the nation.

Donovan is confident UF will continue to progress this season.

“We have a lot of room for improvement and we got to get a lot better,” Donovan said. “That being said, it is still November. And I think we’ve played a lot of games against a lot of different styles which has been healthy. It’s been good.”

Contact Katie Agostin at [email protected].

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