AUBURN, AL — After a couple of impressive wins at home over two very good teams, the Auburn Tigers figured they were ready to take the next step and challenge the number one team in the nation. About two minutes into the game, they were already starting to figure out that it’s one thing to beat Tennessee and Alabama. The Florida Gators are a totally different animal.
Two minutes into the game the Gators already had an 8-2 lead and they put on a clinic on a fast break that ended with a short jumper by Corey Brewer. From the time the break began on a dribble out after a rebound by Joakim Noah, the ball was passed seven times. By the time Brewer got the ball in shooting position he was more alone than the Maytag repairman and on this night, the Gators weren’t missing wide open shots.
“Florida has been the best team that we have played so far,” said Auburn guard Quantez Robertson, who led the Tigers with 17 points. “They shot the ball well and capitalized on a couple of our mistakes. They made the extra pass and made the shot.”
The Gators played like the number one team in the nation. They were the dominant team on the floor in every phase of the game as they made this 91-66 Southeastern Conference win seem rather routine. This was a business trip for a team that knew the Beard-Eaves Coliseum sellout crowd of 11,500 was ready to make this a most inhospitable atmosphere.
The only problem was the Gators never gave the crowd a chance to get into the game. They came prepared to blow the roof off the place. Two minutes into the game, the crowd was nothing more than a nuisance. By the time it was over, more than half the crowd had already exited.
The Gators silenced the crowd and turned the game into a rout by shooting 58 percent from the field overall — 64.3 percent from the three-point stripe — and they got to the foul line 35 times. Defensively, they held a team that averages nearly eight made three-pointers a game to just one. The Florida defense was so suffocating that Auburn could only launch 13 three-pointers the entire game. On a normal night, the Tigers heave it up 24 times from the three-point stripe.
“It’s the way we expect to play,” said Florida point guard Taurean Green. “We come out every game expecting to play the way we did today. We could tell after about two minutes that we really had it going.”
The first two minutes were just a foretaste of things to come. Auburn’s game plan was to swarm Florida’s post players down low and take their chances that the Gators might have an off night from the outside. The strategy produced a mixed bag as the Tigers were able to limit flu-weakened Joakim Noah to eight points and seven rebounds, but even though his offensive game was off a bit the 6-11 junior contributed four assists, three blocked shots and two steals.
When the Tigers sagged, the ball kicked back out and Lee Humphrey, Green and Walter Hodge shot like they had the rim on radar lock. Humphrey, the SEC’s most accurate three-point shooter, was 4-4 from long distance. In six SEC games, he’s hit 23 of his 32 three-balls. Green, the seventh leading three-point shooter in the SEC, went 3-5 on three-pointers, and Hodge, who would be leading the league in three-point shooting if he had enough attempts (24-40 on the season, 60 percent) was 2-2.
In the second half, when the Tigers tried to guard the three-point stripe, Florida’s shooters were content to find Al Horford inside. Horford had 11 second half points and he had a perfect 6-6 day from the field.
Green, Humphrey and Horford had 17 points each to lead the Gators and between the three of them they were 16-20 from the field and 7-9 from the three-point line. Humphrey went 6-7 from the field and 4-4 from the three-point stripe. Horford was 6-6 from the field and he had seven rebounds.
“I think we’re a pretty tough team to beat when we’re working it inside and outside like we were today,” said Humphrey, now 56-116 (48.3 percent) on three-pointers this season. “If we’re hitting open shots outside, it just opens everything up for us.”
While the Gators rarely missed when they had open shots, Auburn rarely got one that was uncontested. Only a three-pointer by Quan Prowell with 13:35 remaining in the game kept the Tigers from being blanked from the stripe.
That was the Florida strategy. It was the same strategy Florida used in March and April last year when the Gators won their last 11 games to claim the NCAA championship. Over their final 11 games last year, the Gators held opponents to less than 30 percent shooting from the three-point line. Entering the game, the Gators had held 20 previous opponents to just 30.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
“It all starts with taking away the three,” said Green. “You take the three-point line away from somebody and you’ve got a great chance to win. Our game plan on defense was to take away the three and funnel them inside and make them take tough twos in the paint. If they make those, they make them, but we’re not going to give up open threes.”
Auburn did get a few spectacular shots to drop in the paint but there are easier ways to make a living than trying to score on the inside against Horford and Noah. From a defensive standpoint, the Gators locked down the Tigers.
“The nights that we can’t hit threes and score the ball, we are not going to win,” said Auburn forward Josh Dollard, who had 11 points and nine rebounds. Dollard got all 11 of his points in the paint in the first half. He went 0-3 from the field in the second half.
Florida, on the other hand, proved that it has plenty of ways to win. Offensively, the Gators were as efficient as they’ve been all season. Defensively, they forced Auburn into one bad shot after another. Even though the Tigers hit a decent percentage — 46.6 percent for the game — the bulk of those shots were heavily contested. Nothing came easy.
“When we make them take tough twos, we feel really good about our chances,” said Green. “When we take away easy shots, I think we’re a tough team.”
Dollard had a different impression of the Gators.
“They are a great team,” he said. “They are good at every spot. Great teams take advantage of the other team’s weakness and they did that today.”
Florida Coach Billy Donovan wasn’t ready to declare his team great even though they won their eleventh straight game and improved to 19-2 overall. Florida is 6-0 in the SEC, the second best conference start in school history.
“I thought our guys played well,” said Donovan. “We were very, very balanced. We were balanced from the three point line. We were balanced in two-point field goals. I think our guys competed and played hard but I think we can get better and try to improve.”
GATOR NOTES: The Gators have a chance to equal the best start in SEC play in school history Wednesday when they play host to Vanderbilt (15-6, 5-2 SEC) at the O’Connell Center … Florida got off to a 7-0 start in the league in 2003 … If the Gators win, it will mark the ninth straight 20-win season for the Gators under Donovan. Prior to Donovan’s arrival, Florida had five 20-win seasons in school history.