TAMPA — Mike Gillespie figured his Florida A&M Rattlers had one chance and one chance only when they faced the fifth-ranked Florida Gators at the St. Petersburg Times Forum. The choices were to try to play the Gators straight up which isn’t such a good idea since he had no answer for Joakim Noah or take a chance that Florida’s three-point shooters would have an off night. He chose Plan B.
FAMU’s sagging, collapsing zone did a good job of strangling Florida’s inside game so the strategy would have worked just fine if only the Gators’ three-point shooters had cooperated. The Gators outside shooters loaded up 36 three-balls and knocked down 15, the fourth best single game total in school history, as Florida (9-2) cruised to a 72-57 win over FAMU.
The win was a milestone in the career of Coach Billy Donovan, who tied Norm Sloan as the all-time winningest coach in Florida history. Donovan, in his eleventh year as Florida’s coach, is 235-100 in his career. Sloan, who coached at Florida during two different eras, compiled a 235-194 record in 15 seasons.
Noah scored only seven points. With Al Horford sidelined with a high ankle sprain, his place in the lineup was taken by 6-9 Chris Richard, who added six points. The third big man in the rotation, freshman Marreese Speights, scored eight points off the bench.
No inside scoring, no problem. The Gators simply loaded up on the outside, hitting nine three-pointers in the first half and six in the second to finish the game with a very respectable 41.7% shooting percentage from the three-point stripe. Senior Lee Humphrey led the way with 15 points on 5-13 three-point shooting.
“Our goal was to make them shoot 35 threes,” said Gillespie. “Even though they are a tremendous shooting team, we felt the only chance that we had was to take Noah and make him handle the basketball, make him do some things, try to take away their inside scoring and make them make shots in a gym they haven’t played in. We were somewhat successful. Obviously he had 17 rebounds and six blocks, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do about that but I thought we executed our game plan to perfection.”
The Gators were prepared for the FAMU strategy. Noah knew coming into the game that FAMU would try to totally shut off the inside game. Every time the ball came into the post, whether he was on the low blocks or at the key, FAMU surrounded him, often with three defenders. Noah took only five shots in the game, concentrating instead on rebounding, defense and passing.
“Coach told us before the game that they were going to do that,” said Noah. “I think they tried to eliminate post play and I feel like we hit a lot of threes. We played really well on the perimeter against their zone.”
Offensively, the Gators tried to make an entry pass to the post players then when the zone collapsed, the ball would kick back out to the perimeter. Humphrey hit the first of his four first half three-pointers with 18:11 to go in the first half off a pass from Noah and that set the tone for the evening. Freshman Dan Werner, just 5-29 from the three-point line in Florida’s first 10 games, connected on three of his four three-ball shots in the first half to help the Gators go 9-21 from beyond the arc.
“We were getting such open looks the way they were playing their zone,” said Humphrey. “They were really packing it in with their zone so it was really good to knock down some three-point shots.”
Down 9-7 in the early going, Werner gave Florida the lead for good with a three-pointer from the wing at the 13:34 mark. Fifteen of Florida’s next 18 points were the result of three-pointers as the Gators built their lead to 28-15 with 7:29 left in the half. Florida stretched the lead to 46-29 at the half.
The Gators came out hot to start the second half, extending the lead to 27 points at 62-37 when Corey Brewer hit a three from the corner with 13:18 remaining in the game. From that point, Florida pretty much put it in cruise control. FAMU chipped away at the lead, knocking it down to a more respectable 15 points at the end of the game.
“I think the way Florida A&M was going to play us tonight was they just weren’t going to give us anything around the basket and I was thrilled because any time you see a guy like Lee Humphrey get off 13 three-point shots you feel very, very good,” said Donovan.
The Gators had 21 assists on 25 made baskets for the game but Donovan felt his team was a bit too unselfish, particularly in the second half.
“I think in the second half we got into a little bit of over-passing,” he said. “I think the guys were almost embarrassed shooting the ball because we did have some pretty decent and good looks at the basket.”
Werner’s play was particularly encouraging. The 6-8 freshman had his best all-around game as a Gator with nine points, three rebounds, five assists and one blocked shot.
“If you shoot enough they’re bound to go in sooner or later,” said Werner. “The coaches have confidence in me as a player to keep shooting when I get open looks. I think I was a little more aggressive on the defensive end and I tried to get to loose balls and make the extra pass.”
The Gators got 11 points each from Taurean Green and Walter Hodge. Green had a game-high eight assists.
Brewer got in 11 minutes of playing time, contributing three points, four rebounds, two assists and a blocked shot in his return from a bout with mononucleosis. It was obvious that he has some conditioning work to do to get back into game condition but Noah said just having the 6-9 senior back on the floor was a great lift for the Gators.
“I know it’s probably hard for him right now since he has a lot of recovering to do but it feels good to have an option like him out there again,” said Noah. “There probably aren’t two players like him in the country.”
Donovan said the Gators are battling some on the court chemistry issues right now with all the injury and sickness problems they have faced. During the most recent 11-day stretch without a game, Donovan said the Gators couldn’t practice the way they needed to with Horford out with the sprained ankle and Brewer trying to get going again after the mono.
“The practice has been great for our young guys and it was great to see them make the strides they made today playing where they were reliable, they played well and did a lot of good things out there,” he said. “Where practice wasn’t helpful for us was with our total team chemistry because we’ve had Corey out and then early in the week Al went out. You have two guys that have been starters since they were freshmen off your team with the expectation level where it is … you take two players of the caliber of Corey Brewer and Al Horford off your team it changes the complexion of anybody.”
Donovan said that it is highly unlikely that Horford will play Wednesday when Stetson comes to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. Horford is wearing a boot to keep the ligament in his ankle from flexing, therefore limiting the amount of irritation and helping it to heal a bit faster.
Donovan also said that he wouldn’t hesitate to hold Horford out of next Saturday’s showdown with Ohio State at the O-Dome if Horford’s ankle isn’t much, much better.
“I’m not going to rush him back,” said Donovan. “If he’s not ready to play against Stetson and he’s nto ready to play against Ohio State I’m going to sit him out. It’s a long year and we’ve got a lot of basketball ahead of us but right now it’s hard for me to get an indication because he didn’t do anything today of how much he’s progressed. I think a lot of it’s going to depend on how he’s feeling. If he plays against Stetson I would be surprised.”