NEW ORLEANS, LA — Just when you thought the Florida Gators had re-written the book on ugly basketball, they put together a half that was exactly what you would expect of the number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Florida went from an aliens have kidnapped the Gators first half to a seems like old times second half. Double ugly transformed to Van Gogh beautiful just like that.
Those same Gators that couldn’t buy a first half basket that wasn’t a dunk did a total team makeover at the intermission. Instead of the bad dream team of the first half, they became Jackson State’s second half nightmare on Elm Street. Those seven straight three-pointers the Gators hit to start the second half were like cutting Jackson State’s heart out with a rusty knife and then stomping it flat. By the time there was no more blood left in the Tigers’ veins, Florida had a 112-69 win and their ticket punched to the second round of the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament.
Florida (30-5) will face Purdue (22-11), a 72-63 winner over Arizona in the first game of the evening session, Sunday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16 in St. Louis.
“I think we were too anxious and I think that’s because we sat around all day and waited till late to play,” said senior Chris Richard, the Southeastern Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year, who hit eight of his nine shots from the field to score a career-high 17 points. “Once we settled down, we were okay. We knew it was just a matter of time and that we’d be okay.”
For awhile there, the Gators looked anything like a team that was going to be okay. In the first half the Gators couldn’t hit a shot from the outside (Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey were a combined 0-9 on three-pointers in the first half and the Gators were 1-13), missed free throws (shot 20, missed eight), turned the ball over (10 times in the first half) and didn’t exactly blanket the Jackson State shooters. The Tigers had just as many open shots as Florida from the perimeter but their problems were complicated by their inability to finish layups which is why they shot only 30.8 percent from the field.
“We were getting open shots in the first half, we just weren’t knocking them down,” said Corey Brewer, who led the Gators with 21 points. Brewer was 2-7 from the field in the first half and 1-4 on three-pointers. He went 5-6 from the field in the second half and 2-2 on three-pointers.
“Coach [Donovan] just said to stay confident and keep shooting,” Brewer added.
The same shooters shot pretty much the same shots in the second half. The only difference was in the second half the Gators were on radar lock. Humphrey hit his first three-point attempt of the second half and confidently followed that up with three more on a 32-12 run in which Brewer hit his two three-pointers and Green, who air-balled a three in the first half, found the range from the arc. Florida’s lead expanded from 41-35 at the half to 73-47 with 12:41 left in the game. Just like that the Gators went from shaky to scintillating. Just like that they went from chairmen of the bored to feeding frenzy focused.
“They are the defending national champions and they certainly played like it in the second half,” said Jackson State coach Tevester Anderson. “I thought we had a chance in the first half but we missed some layups and some open shots that we should have made, but to be down by six in the second half after not shooting that well, we were very fortunate.”
Then came the second half. Any hopes the Tigers had of becoming the first 16-seed in the history of the NCAA Tournament to spring the upset on a number one seed died with those seven dagger thrusts from the three-point line along with the dominance on the backboards.
“Their size and athleticism really wore us down in the second half,” said Anderson. “The first five minutes in the second half they really turned it up. They are a very, very good team that is well coached and I do not see a weakness in that team.”
For Humphrey, seeing that first shot go down in the second half was like a shot of confidence.
“It was a big swing because in the first half I couldn’t hit a shot but I was feeling pretty good in the second half,” said Humphrey, whose first three-pointer hit the side of the backboard. “On that first one I came out of transition and I had a good look but the ball came off my hand funny and I hit the side of the backboard.”
Florida could hit the backboard in the first half. It’s the bottom of the net they couldn’t find. All that changed in the second half when they went 29-42 from the field (69 percent) and they hit nine of their 15 three-point attempts. Instead of sloppy ball handling like the first half, the Gators were crisp and sharp, turning the ball over only twice.
“We weren’t very sharp in the first half,” said Green, who had a season-high 12 assists to go with his six points. “The big thing for us was to stay confident and make some shots in the second half. We needed to take care of the ball better and that helped out a lot, too.”
Some of Florida’s first half shooting miseries could be attributed to Jackson State’s quart of blood technique defense which sent the Gators to the line early and often. A combination of sumo, kick boxing and no holds barred wrasslin’, the Tigers were determined to play the Gators physical and tough but they lacked the size inside to stop the Florida big men (Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Richard and Marreese Speights) who scored 38 of Florida’s 41 first half points on a combined 12-14 shooting. The rest of the team was 2-17.
Florida outrebounded Jackson State 34-14 in the first half and 28-5 in the second half. Florida’s 62-19 rebound margin was an NCAA Tournament record. Horford (16 rebounds) and Noah (12) combined for more rebounds than the entire Jackson State team. The inside dominance showed in the shooting stats for the big guys: Noah (17 points, 12 rebounds, three blocked shots) went 7-7; Richard (17 points, six rebounds) went 8-9; Horford (15 points, 16 rebounds, one blocked shot) went 6-8 and Speights came off the bench to go 7-10, finishing the night with a career-high 16 points and six rebounds in just 10 minutes of playing time. Humphrey had 12 points as the Gators finished the night with six players in double figures.
The Gators of the second half scored 71 points, more than 42 of the NCAA field 65 teams scored in their first round game, a startling difference from the first half when the only thing the Gators could hit was a dunk or a layup.
Just how bad was Florida’s the first half shooting? It wasn’t until Al Horford hit a 12-foot jumper with 7:45 left in the half that Florida finally hit something (other than a free throw) that was from more than three feet away from the basket. When Brewer hit a three-pointer from the right corner with 5:05 remaining in the half it broke an 0-8 start from the arc but unfortunately, that was the last outside shot the Gators hit the rest of the half.
Of course, Jackson State wasn’t exactly bringing back memories of Michael Jordan. The Tigers were 12-39 from the field in the first half and their leading scorer, Trey Johnson (27.3 points per game average) was 2-11 from the field and 0-2 on three-pointers. The Tigers managed just 2-11 on three-point shots. Johnson did finish the game with 25 points but he had to launch 21 shots and the bulk of the points came after the game was already decided.
Florida actually trailed for much of the first half. It wasn’t until Noah dunked with 6:15 left in the half that the Gators took the lead for good, 27-26. That sparked Florida on an 11-0 run that included the Brewer three-ball and an over the head two-handed dunk.
The slow start wasn’t what Donovan wanted from his team but this isn’t his first rodeo. He knows how first round games in the NCAA Tournament can be so he wasn’t about to panic even when the Gators couldn’t buy a shot.
“With the first game [in the tournament] there is always going to be some ups and downs,” he said. “We fought and battled through it. I think as a whole we played pretty well.”
Florida will have to do better than pretty well Sunday against a Big 10 Conference team that plays physical, tough defense and is a taller, stronger team than Jackson State. He knows the Gators can expect to face some adversity against the Boilermakers, but he’s a confident coach whose team just put together one of the best halves of basketball you’d ever want to see.
“If you look at every single game, every game is a battle and some sort of adversity that you have to overcome,” said Donovan. “The thing I like about these kids is that they stick together and they play together. We may not always play great or look unbelievable but they stick together and they play unselfishly and they have balance.”
The Gators certainly didn’t look great or unbelievable in the first half but they stuck together, put together a masterpiece of a second half and got over the first hump in the NCAA road. The next hump is Purdue on Sunday.
“Just because we rebounded the ball well and did things well today doesn’t mean we are going to do them the next game,” said Noah. “Each team is different and we’ve seen a lot of different adversity. Right now it’s all about the moment … focusing on the task.”