Call it the dunk heard ’round the world. When Joakim Noah finished his one-man fast break with a thundering dunk — a coast-to-coast excursion in which he weaved through some early traffic and then accelerated past everybody at midcourt — it was a clear signal to the many doubters that have been piling on Noah and the Florida Gators in the last couple of weeks.
Mark it down. With 18:21 remaining in the game on Sunday, March 4, Joakim Noah made it perfectly clear that the Gator Boyz are back again and they’re going to be reckoned with in the NCAA Tournament. Fourth-ranked Florida’s 85-72 win over Kentucky at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center was a statement game for a team that has been going through a mini-slump the last couple of weeks. Every bit as important, it was a statement game that the fire burns like a stoked furnace in Joakim Noah’s belly once again.
When Noah is blocking shots, snatching down rebounds at rim-level, leading fast breaks and doing clinics on the in-your-face dunk, the Gators have that look of invincibility about them. They looked better than they have in a couple of weeks in the first half, when it was 43-43 at the break, but the second half bore a very strong resemblance to those Gators that slashed and burned their way through the NCAA Tournament field on their way to a national championship last March.
Noah filled up the box score. He scored 17 points and five of his six made shots were dunks. He grabbed 10 rebounds including four on the defensive end. He made a couple of picture perfect passes for assists, blocked one shot and altered at least four others, and came away with a steal. If it is possible to be everywhere at once, Noah was.
The game was back and so was the swagger. After he was called for a second half foul, he grabbed his jersey, thumped his chest and then gave the sign to the Rowdy Reptiles to pump up the volume. The noise level in the O-Dome went from mere deafening to something close to ear drum shattering in a matter of seconds.
“When he does that the crowd gets into it and we feed off the crowd and that gives us more energy,” said Taurean Green, who put together his best game since a February 14 win over Alabama. Green knocked down three of his four three-point shots and he had more assists (five) than turnovers (three) for only the second time since that win over Alabama.
Walter Hodge came off the bench to score 15 points, hitting all three of his three-pointers, while Al Horford came up with another double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds while blocking three shots. Lee Humphrey went out with style on Senior Day, scoring 11 points and shooting three-pointers with confidence and without the hesitation that has plagued him the last few games.
“When we get five or even six guys in double figures, we’re moving the ball around and I don’t think anyone can beat us,” said Hodge, who scored in double figures for the first time since Florida’s win over Tennessee on Feburary 3.
The Gators moved the ball around so well that they shot 64 percent from the field for the game (32-50) and they hit 9-17 from the three-point line. You have to go back to Florida’s win over Georgia in Athens to find the last time the Gators hit more than 50 percent of their three-pointers.
It was a welcome rebirth for a team that was playing about as well as a team could play for a good stretch of the season only to bog down on the road in February. The Gators lost three of their previous four games and all three losses were on the road.
“Five of the last seven games leading up to this game have been on the road and that’s a draining stretch to go up to with the way the league is set up,” said Coach Billy Donovan.
Horford, who left the game for three minutes after tweaking his ankle in a collision with Kentucky’s Lukass Obrzut, said the grind of the road was getting to the Gators.
“It makes a big difference when we play at home instead of on the road,” said Horford. “Fortunately we’re not playing on the road anymore. They’re going to be neutral sites from now on.”
Getting back home was a good thing for Noah, who had talked openly leading up to this game about the need to rekindle the fires. On the road, Noah is the subject of more verbal abuse than any player in all of college basketball.
“There’s a lot of abuse that to me crosses the line on the road with him that I think is unfair,” said Donovan. “Being a 21-year-old kid, it can get to you.”
Nothing got to Noah Sunday afternoon. He was home where the crowd at the O-Dome feeds off his energy and it was easy to see he had it prior to the opening tip. He was pacing back and forth like a big cat in the moments before the game got under way and once the clock started running, he became Florida’s version of the Everready Bunny. He kept going and going and going.
He ran the floor. He directed traffic. He altered shots even when he didn’t go after them. Just his presence was a nerve-racking experience whenever a Kentucky player got free in the paint. He grabbed rebounds and got the break going by putting the ball on the floor. When Horford or a teammate grabbed the rebound, Noah sprinted down the floor like a wide receiver on a fly pattern. He dunked with the kind of authority that’s been missing these last few games.
His greatest accomplishment was getting his team going again. The Gators are a team that exemplifies unselfishness and team play but Noah understood before the Kentucky game that he had to dig deep down and find something within himself that would help transform a team spinning its wheels into one that is like a Ferrari in overdrive.
“I feel I have to play more for me and be a little selfish,” he said.
He wasn’t talking about needing more shots, improving his NBA draft status or making somebody’s All-America team. He was talking about shutting out everything and everybody else so he can concentrate on what’s most important and to do that, he’s got to be selfish.
“Sometimes I feel the media is like poison,” said Noah. “It’s really poison. It’s funny to you guys but this is my life. At the same time, I have to play for me, my family and the people that really matter for me.”
That’s precisely what Billy Donovan has been telling Noah. Donovan has said all along that Noah can’t possibly live up to the hype and expectations of others and he’s had to bite his tongue as Noah has tried to be accommodating to everybody that wants a piece of him.
As much as Donovan might have wanted to step in and say enough is enough, he had to let Noah go through much of this on his own. Sunday was a strong indication that the lesson has been learned.
“There are things that Jo has to learn,” said Donovan. “There are things he has to go through. It’s amazing to me how everybody thinks they have everything figured out. They know Joakim Noah. They know what’s wrong and they have no clue what they’re talking about. Nobody does.
“I think that when you are a young kid and you have the hype and I made the comment before the season started — Joakim Noah is never going to live up to expectations but nobody seems to want to listen to me. They all want to pump up Joakim Noah and then when he doesn’t play well, tear him down, and unfortunately that’s the way of the world. That’s the reality of it. I think Jo has finally realized I’ve got to play up to the expectations of my coaches and my teammates and do the very, very best I can. It was good to see him get back to that energy level that he’s had.”
Noah had the energy Sunday and it turned a stagnant Gator team into one that turned the game into a track meet. In the second half, it was all Kentucky could do to run up and down the court with the Gators. Florida shot nearly 70 percent in the second half while holding Kentucky to 29 points, 34.6 percent from the field and 16.6 percent from the three-point stripe.
“I feel like it was important to get back on a winning track,” said Noah. “It was important to prove to us, not to anybody else. We don’t have to prove to anybody. What we’ve done speaks for itself. What I’ve realized in the last three weeks is that we don’t play for anybody but ourselves. What matters are the people in the locker room because those are the people that really care.”
The people in the locker room were a very happy bunch Sunday afternoon. They knew the significance. They knew what it means when Joakim Noah has more energy than a nuclear reactor. They knew they had sent the rest of the Southeastern Conference and the college basketball world a shot across the bow.
“When Jo is running the floor and Al and Chris are running the floor and we’re getting dunks we’re tough to beat,” said Green. “I guess you can say we’re back.”