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Confident Prather a Difference-Maker for Gators in Victory Over Virginia

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OMAHA, Neb. -- Even though Florida lost last week in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, a few Gators managed to take something positive from the narrow defeat against top-ranked Kentucky.

It had nothing to do with their outstanding shooting, either.

“We replayed it over and over again,” sophomore center Cody Larson said. “On the bus after the game, guys were watching on their phones. We saw it on SportsCenter. I was like, ‘Good for him.’ We were all happy for Casey.”

That would be Casey Prather, the backup forward who averaged 1.5 points and less than nine minutes per game during a sophomore season that included nine “DNP/Coach’s Decision.” Prather elevated his stature somewhat last week when he elevated up and over Kyle Wiltjer and dunked rudely in the Wildcat's face. The highlight, with four different angles, went viral on YouTube.

Prather, apparently, caught the virus.

After scoring just 37 points all season, Prather poured in a career-high 14 in Florida’s 71-46 vaporizing of Virginia in Saturday’s first round of the NCAA West Region at CenturyLink Center.

For Prather, it took a long time, but what great timing he turned out to have.

“[The coaches] kept telling me to stay the course and my time would come,” Prather said. “I guess [Friday] was a good time for me to come out a play well.”

The 6-foot-6, 212-pounder from Jackson, Tenn., Prather remade his body in the weight room during the offseason, but without much chance to try the new version out. But against Virginia he made six of his seven shots, grabbed four rebounds and drew two offensive charges. His teammates, knowing all too well the hard work and undeterred attitude Prather has put forth this season, were absolutely delighted that he was finally able to reap some rewards.

“I knew he was capable of that,” senior guard Erving Walker said. “He does it every day in practice and he just gives us fits.”

Coach Billy Donovan was even more pleased. Several times this season, after a Florida home victory, Donovan returned to the basketball complex to see Prather, along with roommate and close friend Larson, going through individual instruction, trying to get better.

“I have been around so many young players who don’t get a chance to play and they pout and sulk and they have no resiliency to come back the next day and work,” Donovan said. “I can tell you this: whether he played two minutes, not gotten in the game or [played] 15 minutes, he is the same kid every day. I’m personally happy for him.”

Prather’s lack of playing time has been as much related to a lack of confidence, which often leads to indecision and then to turnovers. He’s had long pep talks with his coaches, along with chats with a sports psychologist to try and punch through the wall.

“As time goes by, I’ve gotten my confidence back,” he said.

It must have gone through the CenturyLink roof Friday.

Late in the game, Prather was on the receiving end of an alley-oop pass from Walker -- and tomahawk-dunk finish -- that will be seen on highlight shows over the next few days. He also made just his second 3-point shot of the season. He made a sweet, spinning left-handed layup off a drive into the paint. He scored twice on offensive rebounds.

Oh yes, he defended, too.

"He gave them a great lift," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "When you look at some one off the bench to give you a spark -- I don't want to say that you weren't counting on [him] -- but that is a pleasant surprise and he was that for them."

After the game, he was the chosen Florida player to be interviewed alongside Donovan by TNT.

“I didn’t expect this,” Prather said. “I just focused on the game and what I could do to help the team.”

He did a little bit of everything and in the process might have given the Gators (24-10) a few more options when it comes to personnel, starting with Sunday’s game against Norfolk State (26-9), which registered the Richter Scale shocker of the tournament in ousting No. 2-seed Missouri in the day’s other West-bracket matchup.

“No question,” Donovan said. “He’s going to get the opportunity to get in there and hopefully play within himself and give us a boost.”

Like he did Saturday.

“I want to stay positive, do what I can do to help the team,” the soft-spoken and one-of-few-words Prather said. “Defensive, offense, rebounding, whatever.”

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