ATLANTA, GA — The defense never rests. In the courtroom of public opinion with a CBS national television audience watching on Selection Sunday, Florida stated its case for a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament with the same brand of relentless, aggressive, smothering defense that carried the Gators to a national championship last year.
The Gators (29-5) are the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament champions for the third straight year because the Gators rarely gave the Arkansas Razorbacks a clean look at the basket. While the Gators had a few lapses on the offensive end, the defense never took a play off. Florida’s 77-56 victory at the Georgia Dome is a tribute to five players understanding the principles of good position, moving their feet and eliminating the three-point line as a viable offensive option. Arkansas couldn’t buy a basket from the outside and when the Razorbacks tried to go inside, you would have thought 6-10 Al Horford and 6-11 Joakim Noah were practicing for the intramural beach volleyball championship the way they were swatting the ball around.
In Florida’s three-game march to the championship, the Gators held three opponents to 33.6 percent from the field on a collective 45-138 shooting. From the three-point stripe, opponents drew so much iron they could have qualified for journeyman cards in the steelworkers union. You want a stat that will blow your mind? Try this one: from the three-point stripe in three games, opponents went a combined 9-59.
That’s 15.9 percent. You’d be hard pressed to get better defense than that.
“In some of our losses closing out the year we could look at teams’ three-point field goal percentage and teams’ shooting percentage against us and look at that as being reasons why we lost some games,” said Florida Coach Billy Donovan. “I think it just reinforced our guys what we’ve been telling them all the time. It is about playing defense. It is about rebounding and offensively it is about playing unselfishly and taking care of the ball and taking what the defense gives you.
“In three games in this tournament we were guarded three different ways. Georgia really got out and tried to pressure us. Ole Miss played zone and tried to pack it in and take away our bigs and make us beat them over the top. Today they wanted us to beat them up front. Offensively, we have to take what the defense gives us but the one thing that has to be constant is our defense because there are going to be nights when you don’t shoot the ball well and you don’t have a good shooting percentage from the three point line. You still have to try to give yourself a chance to win and the best way to do that is through defense. In a couple of losses closing out the year we didn’t give ourselves a chance to win because our offense wasn’t good at all and we gave up too a high percentage from the three-point line.”
Playing defense was a contagious effort. The Gators were like leeches the way they stuck to the Arkansas three-point shooters. Patrick Beverly was 0-6. Sonny Weems was 0-5. Stefan Welsh was 0-4. The Razorbacks depend on those three to hit shots. Sunday, there were no open looks because Florida was like a heavyweight with an opponent pinned to the ropes. One body shot got things started. Two weren’t nearly enough. The Gators just kept pounding away, determined to keep on bloodying Arkansas until the horn sounded or the towel was thrown in to stop the carnage.
This was defense the way it’s supposed to be played — tough, relentless, never giving an inch. This was what happens when five guys play like one.
“I think our team defense has been really good,” said tournament MVP Al Horford, who scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds Sunday. “We’re back to playing together as a team on defense. We have each other’s backs.”
Arkansas came into the championship game Sunday hoping to have answers for a Florida defense that held Georgia and Ole Miss to 6-35 from the three-point line in the first two games. The Razorbacks were 1-15 from beyond the arc in the first half.
That’s seven percent. You don’t win games shooting seven percent from the three-point stripe.
It didn’t get much better in the second half because the Gators wouldn’t let up. They maintained their defensive poise and intensity, ran at every opportunity and left the Razorbacks gasping for breath. Arkansas was 2-9 from the three-point stripe. Only in the last four minutes of the game, when it was already far out of hand, did Arkansas put together a run of eight straight points.
That was the first run of more than five points that the Gators gave up to an opponent in the three games of this tournament.
“I think that basketball is a game of swings,” said Noah, whose impressive stat line read 17 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots and five steals. “You’re going to have your moments when you’re going to make a run. We just kept pushing, kept pushing. We knew they had played four games in a row. We play like this all the time. We wanted to run and make their bigs run the floor and outwork them.”
Arkansas is the only team in the Southeastern Conference that can match the Gators size up front, but while the Razorbacks had plenty of height, they didn’t have Florida’s ability to sprint up and down the floor. When Noah or Horford snagged a rebound, they would put the ball on the floor and break out of the pack. That forced tempo but it also forced fatigue on a team that was playing its fourth game in four days.
“We wanted to play our style of ball,” said Taurean Green, who scored 10 points and hit two of his three three-pointers. “We wanted to make them run with us and we wanted to take the three-point line out of the game.
“I think a team gets frustrated with our defense because we’re going to force it out of the lane and we’re going to take away the three-point line. We want teams to feel like ‘dang, the best we can get is a contested three-point shot.’ That’s a tough shot. You win most of the time when you make the other team take a tough shot every time down the floor. That’s our goal. When we’re doing that, we’re pretty tough to beat.”
It was a championship effort, about what you’d expect for a team that has made the championship game of the SEC Tournament its personal domain the last four years. This was Florida’s fourth straight year in the championship game and by winning the SEC Tournament three years in a row, the Gators joined Kentucky and Alabama as the only teams in conference history to do a three-peat.
“Championships are what it’s all about,” said senior Chris Richard, who came off the bench to score eight points and grab six rebounds. “You know what, though. I still don’t think we’ve played anywhere close to the best we can play. We played a good game, but I know we can play so much better than this. We’re hungry. We want to play our best. We want to win another championship. Winning championships doesn’t get old.”
Last year, the Southeastern Conference Tournament was Florida’s springboard to the greatest post-season in Gator basketball history. Florida won another championship Sunday in the place where the 2007 season will come to an end. In 22 days, the Georgia Dome will see a national champion crowned. If the Florida Gators play anything like they did against Arkansas, they could very well be dancing again, just like Noah did as he waited for CBS to come back from a commercial break.
With Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery waiting to interview him, Noah moved and grooved with the Florida band. When someone shouted from the stands to the charismatic 6-11 junior, he stopped his dancing, pointed an index finger skyward and shouted back, “We’re back! We’re right where we need to be, baby! We’re right where we need to be!”
After the last three days in the SEC Basketball Tournament, you would be hard pressed to find someone that would argue with him.