Billy Donovan wasn’t about to let a moment like this slip away. Sure, there are three games left in the regular season for the Florida Gators but Southeastern Conference basketball championships just don’t grow on trees. When you’ve only won four conference championships in school history and the last one outright was 18 years ago, you savor the moment and you never forget how sweet it is.
This one was special because the Gators got to cut down the nets at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The last time they won the SEC outright was in 1988 at Nashville. The Gators have won the SEC Tournament twice, they’ve won three regional championships in the NCAA Tournament and they won the NCAA championship last April but the championship nets have always been cut down someplace other than Gainesville.
That’s why Donovan wanted the third-ranked Gators (25-3, 12-1 SEC) to feel the love from the sellout crowd of 12,076 at the O-Dome that saw a little piece of history made with Florida’s 63-47 win over South Carolina (13-13, 2-10 SEC). Florida not only got its first SEC title since sharing the league championship in 2000 and 2001, but the Gators tied their all-time best mark for wins in SEC play and broke their all-time record for wins in the regular season. The Gators also set a new record for wins in the regular season with 25.
“I don’t know how long Florida has been playing basketball but this is the fourth time in school history that the school has been able to win an SEC championship and only the second time to be able to win it outright,” said Donovan. “I hope that because of the national championship last year that people look at this and say ‘well you’re supposed to do it’ or ‘it’s no big deal.’ It is a big deal. These kids have tied the number of wins in conference play; they’ve set a record for regular season wins in a year and they won an SEC championship and that was with all the expectations being through the roof. I’m proud of them. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplishment up to this point in time.”
Florida came into the game needing a win to clinch a tie for the championship. When Mississippi State handled Vanderbilt, 83-70, in Starkville, that was the fifth loss in league play for Vandy, giving the Gators their first outright SEC title since Norm Sloan was coaching the Gators.
Donovan had already made up his mind that if the Gators won Wednesday night there would be a celebration. Championships are rare, especially when you have a chance to celebrate one with three games left on the schedule. He admitted after the game he’s never been part of a team that won a championship at any level with three league games left before the tournaments begin.
“It doesn’t happen a lot.” he said. “I think that any time you win a championship you celebrate, you enjoy it, you cherish it. It wouldn’t have sent the right message to our players if I would have said we’re not going to do anything, we’re going to walk right off the court.”
Florida earned the championship with one of its better defensive efforts of the season. On a night when Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey combined to go 7-30 from the field. Green scored six points but he was 0-6 from the field. Noah had problems finishing inside. He was 2-10.
“That’s a formula for losing a game,” said Donovan. “You look at the stat sheet and you ask how did they win by double digit points? It was our defense and defending the three-point line, two things we didn’t do on Saturday.”
Against Vanderbilt, the Gators came unglued defensively. The Commodores shot 57 percent from the field and hit 10-21 on three-pointers in their 83-70 win over the Gators. It was obvious in the first half that the Gators were on a mission to right that wrong.
South Carolina scored only 13 points in the first half on dreadful 5-26 shooting from the field. Coming off a win over Tennessee in which they shot 13-28 from the three-point line, the Gamecocks couldn’t knock down a first half three-pointer. Florida’s defense was so suffocating that South Carolina managed only five three-point attempts in the half.
For the game, South Carolina was 20-56 from the field (35.7 percent) and 4-14 from the three-point stripe (28.6 percent).
It didn’t matter that the Gators couldn’t seem to buy a basket if the ball was in the hands of anyone other than Al Horford or Chris Richard. Horford finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and five blocked shots. He hit 10 of his 18 shots. Richard went 6-7, scoring 14 points to tie a career-high and grabbing six rebounds.
“It was our defense that carried us and that was the one thing you want to be able to do so that when you have those off nights shooting is play good enough defense to give yourself an opportunity to win,” said Donovan.
Florida set the tone for the whole game in the first few minutes, taking charge at the 12:30 mark on a Brewer layup that tied the game at 8-8. Florida scored the next 18 points over a 7:33 stretch for a 26-8 lead. It was 30-13 at the half.
Donovan wanted the Gators to get back on track quickly after the Vanderbilt game and he knew that doing it with defense is the best way for his team to re-focus after a tough loss.
“We talked a lot and this is a group that they like to win and compete, the team is important to them and they want to do the right things,” said Donovan. “We had two great days of practice getting prepared for these guys. To hold any SEC team to 13 points at the half is a pretty good indicator of their commitment to wanting to get back to playing defense better than they did in Nashville Saturday.”
South Carolina had a better offensive effort in the second half, but the closest the Gamecocks could come was nine points (50-41) with 4:57 left in the game. Florida regained its focus to finish out on a 13-8 run to earn the right to cut down the nets at the O-Dome for the first time.
When it was over, Donovan let his team savor a title, knowing that it’s back to business Thursday to prepare for a road trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU on Saturday. A championship was won by the Gators Wednesday but there is still plenty more to play for even in the remaining SEC games. A win against LSU and Florida sets a record for SEC wins in a season. Staying on the winning track will help Florida earn a number one seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Donovan took a moment to put Wednesday night’s accomplishment in its perspective. Keeping things in their proper place has been rather difficult in a season in which the expectations have been so high for this team. Now, one championship has been secured but there are other championships to play for. There will be time to focus in on what’s next Thursday. Wednesday night, it was time to cut loose a little bit.
“Tomorrow we have to regroup and get ready to play on Saturday,” said Donovan. “Let’s try to become the best we can become. I don’t want us to be a team that suffers from human elements — complacency, selfishness, uninspired, lack of motivation, ‘it’s easy, it’s not really a big deal, I want to get to March.’ I didn’t want that. I wanted them to challenge themselves to get better each and every day and live up to a standard that they have set. We have to get back to that tomorrow, but today is a good day to enjoy what happened.”
GAME NOTES: With his six points, Noah became the third of Florida’s starting five to reach the 1,000-point mark this season. He now has 1,003 for his career … Horford has 956 career points while Humphrey has 951 … Noah led the Gators with 13 rebounds and four blocked shots. Brewer had a career-high 12 rebounds … Noah also had three assists and two steals … Richard has hit 58-80 from the field this season … Green went 6-6 from the foul line. He’s hit his last 27 free throws. He’s 92-106 for the season, 86.7 percent … Richard will move into second place all-time Saturday against LSU when he plays in his 130th game as a Gator. Matt Bonner holds the record at 130 games.