ATLANTA, GA — They have that edge once again; that look in their eyes; that swagger in the way they walk and that extra bounce in their steps. You’ve seen it before. You saw it last year on that magical mystery tour that took them to the NCAA championship and when you see them looking and playing like they did last March, you wonder if the Florida Gators can run the table again.
Two games into the SEC Basketball Tournament at the Georgia Dome, the Gators are looking once again like somebody’s worst nightmare. Friday night, they stuck a dagger in Georgia’s heart in the first five minutes and had the Bulldogs wondering why they ever left Athens. Saturday afternoon, the Gators figured if it isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it. The same formula that cut out Georgia’s heart and stomped it flat worked again.
It was 17-0 before Georgia got the license plate of the truck that ran them over Friday night. Saturday, the Gators romped to a 13-2 lead in the first five minutes and never looked back as they took a very business-like 80-59 win over Ole Miss (20-11) in the SEC semifinals.
Florida (28-5) advances to the SEC Tournament championship game for the fourth straight year. When the Gators square off with Arkansas (21-12), Sunday at 1 p.m., they will be going for their third straight SEC Tournament championship. Only Kentucky (several times) and Alabama (1989-92) has ever had a better run. The Gators have won eight straight SEC Tournament games.
“It’s a great accomplishment for our program and our school,” said Coach Billy Donovan. “It’s hard to get here. It’s hard to get into a championship game and there are a lot of good teams in this league. When you play at a neutral site there is not that home court advantage although a lot of fans show up to support us. For us to go to four straight is a great accomplishment, but the beauty of it is that everything that’s happened up to this point in time the past three years really has no bearing whatever happens tomorrow and I think our guys understand that.”
The winning formula for both of Florida’s games in this SEC Tournament has been apply the defensive pressure early and transform bad shots and turnovers into points at the other end of the floor. Georgia missed its first 12 shots Friday night. Ole Miss was only slightly better Saturday, knocking down two of its first 12, not the kind of start you want against a team that might be as good as there is in the country when all five starters are playing with the same kind of intensity.
“We played defense the full 40 minutes, got on the boards, got on the break and we got some really easy buckets,” said point guard Taurean Green. “We wanted to come out and throw the first punch. We wanted to force some bad shots and turnovers and we wanted to start everything down low so our bigs could kick it out if they couldn’t score. We moved the ball. We got off to a good start.”
It was that furious start that set the tone for the whole game. The Gators swung from the heels early and delivered a series of body blows that forced Ole Miss to play catch up the rest of the way against a team that was taller, quicker and certainly more experienced. Not exactly a formula for success. Florida had a couple of stretches — one in the first half, another in the second — when the intensity eased up and both times the Gators reacted as if they were annoyed that any team would have the audacity to try a comeback against them.
Florida’s combination of defense, rebounding and quick-strike ability on the offensive end was just too much. Florida had the ability to score points in bunches. Ole Miss had to struggle for nearly every point.
“When we did get clean looks we were so out of rhythm because we were trying to catch up,” said Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy. “We were looking for that mysterious eight point shot and we couldn’t find it.”
The Rebels must have felt like they were scaling Mount Everest. They climbed and climbed some more only to realize they were nowhere close to the summit. It took all the energy they had to cut the lead to eight in the first half (30-22) at the 2:22 mark and just when they were feeling good about themselves, thinking that maybe they could play with the Gators, Florida pumped up the volume once again. Lee Humphrey nailed a three-ball, Taurean Green knocked down a pair of free throws and Walter Hodge snaked through the Ole Miss defense for a layup and that eight-point lead was 15 (37-22) at the half.
When Ole Miss got within 11 in the second half (52-41), it was almost like a reminder for the big bad Gators to put the little guys back in their place. The 10-0 run began with a Lee Humphrey three with 10:51 left in the game and it ended on a Green layup with 8:42 left.
Two minutes. Ten points. Game. Set. Match.
The Ole Miss strategy was to take the inside game away from the Gators by using its guards to double down on the entry pass in the low blocks. That kept Al Horford (nine points), Joakim Noah (eight points) and Chris Richard (four) from dominating the game offensively in the paint so that part of the strategy worked.
The only problem was, Corey Brewer and Humphrey were radar-sharp.
“You can’t try to take one guy out or even say you’re going to take the inside away from us,” said Richard, who will be playing in his fourth straight SEC championship game Sunday. “If you can’t play us straight up, you give up something. They tried to take our bigs out today. That just opened it up for Corey and Lee.”
Brewer was Florida’s X-factor. When Ole Miss laid off him, he nailed three pointers (three for the game). When they tried to get in his face, he took it to the rack and finished. He led the Gators with 22 points.
Everybody knew what Humphrey was going to do and he didn’t disappoint. He worked the arc for open spots and when he got the ball, he didn’t hesitate to let it fly. He finished with 17 points including 5-8 from the three-point line.
Having so many options made Green almost giggle when he thought about making decisions to distribute the ball.
“Sometimes I get confused because we get so many guys open I almost don’t know who to pass it to,” said Green, who followed up Friday night’s 19-point effort with 14 points, six assists and just one turnover. “When we play our style of ball, it’s always fun.”
Horford, Noah and Richard didn’t need to score much for the Gators to be effective. Since the openings weren’t there on the offensive end, they focused on rebounding and defense. Horford had 10 rebounds and two blocked shots while Noah had nine rebounds and three blocks. Richard contributed five rebounds and a block.
This was the Florida we saw last year. This was the Florida that ran off a 17-game winning streak in the middle of this season. This is the Florida that is very capable of running the table again.
And as for that mini-slump where the Gators lost three of four games near the end of the regular season, Kennedy says you shouldn’t read anything into it.
“I know much was made of Florida losing some games near the end of the regular season but now those kids know it’s one and done and their focus is certainly at a very high level,” said Kennedy. “Billy’s not going to let them lose focus. Individually, they’ve got a lot of very talented players but collectively, this is a very special group.”
Emphasis on collectively.
If anything, this game emphasized what happens when Florida has its team focused and playing as one. That’s what carried the Gators to the national championship last year. It’s what has the basketball experts buzzing again, thinking that maybe Florida is ready to go on another one of those magical mystery tours.
When Donovan was asked after the game who is his best player, he smiled and then thought for a second before he responded.
“I would say our team,” he said. “That’s what we are. It’s all inside working parts together. They play together. They feed off each other. They all benefit from each other. I can’t say sit there and say that one person is more valuable than the other. If you took somebody off this team the entire complexion of this team would change. We’re a team. That’s what they’ve thrived on. That’s what they’ve bought into. That’s what they think their identity is. I think that’s the way they end up playing. “
If you need an answer why the Gators are looking for a third straight SEC title Sunday and they’re heavy favorites to do the three-peat thing, that’s it.
You can’t beat just one of them. You have to beat all of them and that’s not exactly the easiest task in the world.
GAME NOTES: Florida held Ole Miss to 31.3 percent shooting and 4-17 (23.5 percent) from the three-point line. In the Gators’ two games in the SEC Tournament, opponents are 45-138 on all shots, 6-35 from the three-point stripe … The Gators were 28-58 from the field (48.3 percent) and 14-18 from the foul line … Humphrey is just one point away from becoming the fifth Gator this season to join the 1,000-point club … Humphrey has hit at least one three-pointer in 32 straight games, the second longest streak in school history … The Gators have hit at least one three-pointer in 500 straight games.