NEW ORLEANS, LA — If you were looking to whet your appetite for the annual Wrestlemania show, you only needed to tune in to the CBS broadcast of Sunday afternoon’s second round NCAA Tournament game between the Florida Gators and the Purdue Boilermakers at the half-filled New Orleans Arena. About the only thing missing other than a rowdy full house was a steel cage and the steroids.
This was more fitting for the NFL’s Black and Blue Division than it was for college basketball. You’d have to go all the way back to Glendale, Arizona and Ohio State’s offensive line to find more holding. Physical? Let’s just say there are people doing hard time in places like nearby Angola (LA) Penitentiary for something less than the officiating crew of Karl Hess, Davis Hall and Patrick Evans allowed Purdue to get away with. This was quart of blood technique defense — bruise if you can, draw blood whenever possible — designed to intimidate and frustrate.
And it almost worked which is why this is called March Madness.
“We had to battle all the way through for 40 minutes to find a way to win,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan after the Gators (31-5) were the last men standing in this 74-67 winner moves on, loser goes home affair. “We knew coming in that it was going to be very physical. It was obvious that their mentality coming in was to be as physical as possible.”
Ninth-seeded Purdue needed an equalizer to spring the upset of upsets in this 2007 NCAA Tournament. Lacking Florida’s height and bulk inside, the Boilermakers turned the game into a 10-man over the top battle royale that needed a hold your breath sequence of plays to turn it around with just under six minutes to go in the game.
At that point, the Gators were ahead by the slimmest of margins (51-49) thanks to a pair of free throws by Corey Brewer. On Purdue’s trip down the floor, Grant Keaton missed a leaner that Carl Landry rebounded and tried to stick back. The only problem was 6-11 Joakim Noah stood in the way. Noah’s timing was impeccable as he swatted the ball to the top of the key where Brewer tipped it once, twice and finally a third time to himself, all the while maneuvering his way around two Purdue defenders. Once Brewer wrestled control of the ball past midcourt, he dribbled to the top of the key where he delivered the perfect chest-high pass to Lee Humphrey, who was spotted up in the corner. Humphrey, only 1-5 from three-point range up until this point, launched and it was a dagger of a three-ball that found the bottom of the net to give the Gators a 54-49 lead.
“That was a 50-50 play, a play where Corey tips it like three times to himself,” said Noah. “It’s like no Gator has it and no Purdue player has it. So it’s like those are the 50-50 plays that I feel like we came up with a lot of them down the stretch.”
Although Purdue would make a couple of shots that kept the Boilermakers within a defensive stop of a chance to tie or go ahead, that one play clearly altered the momentum. Florida put the game away down the stretch with three perfect scoring moves in the post by Al Horford and 10-10 free throw shooting from Brewer and Taurean Green.
“If you don’t make free throws you’re going to lose the game,” said Brewer. “We’ve been watching games on TV and teams have been losing because they haven’t made free throws. We had to step up and make them and we were very focused.”
Florida had trouble getting its early focus because the Gators spent most of the first half trying to adjust to the physical nature of the game. From the outset, Purdue’s defensive goal was two-fold: (1) take Taurean Green out of the game and (2) play the game at a 120-point tempo. The Boilermakers alternated three different guards on Green and brought traps from the backside to try to force Florida out of its offensive rhythm by making the Gators set up above the foul line. Offensively, the Boilermakers continually worked the shot clock down to 10 seconds before looking for a shot, which had the dual effect of making the Gators work very hard on defense and shortening the game.
The aggressive play on the perimeter kept the Gators from consistently getting the ball down low where they had a decisive size advantage and that kept Carl Landry, Purdue’s tallest player and only inside scoring threat out of foul trouble. A Joakim Noah dunk off a pass from the left wing by Walter Hodge with 14:14 remaining in the half was Florida’s only successful inside post scoring play.
“They did a good job of rushing us in the first half,” said Green. “They pressured us the whole game. They wanted us to drive and try to make plays and that’s what we did but in the second half we ran our offense. We made them guard us for a little bit and that wore them down.”
Florida shot just 36.4 percent in the first half but the Gators adjusted the offense at the half and that turned the game around. Florida went 13-20 from the field in the second half, and after a 2-10 showing from the three-point stripe in the first half, Florida was 3-7 in the second and all three three-pointers were daggers in Purdue’s heart.
Green delivered a pair of three-point bombs on consecutive trips down the floor to give Florida a 42-38 lead with 12:36 left in the game. The game was far from over at that point but the effect of those two shots was to open the inside the rest of the way for Horford, who was 7-9 from the field. Horford and Brewer led the Gators in scoring with 17 points apiece while Green finished with 14. Noah, who snatched down nine rebounds, blocked three shots and scored nine points.
Purdue led by as many as seven points (29-22 with 4:32 remaining) in the first half before the Gators started to turn the momentum around with some very physical defensive play of their own. Just when the Boilermakers looked like they were going to have their way, Florida countered with a tough double-team by Brewer and Horford that dislodged the ball from David Teague into Green’s hands. Green dribbled length of the court and finished with a layup with 3:19 left that cut the margin down to 29-26. On Purdue’s next possession, Horford muscled Carl Landry away from the basket, forced a bad shot, grabbed the rebound and got fouled. He converted two free throws to make it a one-point game (29-28) with 2:48 remaining, the closest the Gators had been since it was 14-13 with 12:54 remaining in the half. Although the Gators would trail, 31-29, at the half, Florida had forced its way back into the game.
It was Horford’s defense on David Teague on the perimeter that allowed the Gators to draw even on a Walter Hodge free throw (29-29) with 1:22 left in the half. Horford matched up one-on-one with Chris Kramer on the left wing and surprised the Purdue guard by playing him tight enough to knock the ball away. Horford went to the floor to outmuscle three Boilermakers for the ball, then flipped it out to Hodge who was fouled.
It took those kind of plays to keep the Gators in the game. It was a grind but Florida knew that was going to be the case going into the game.
“We knew it was going to be a grind all day long,” said Horford, who finished with nine rebounds, a blocked shot and three steals. “We wanted to be a part of that. We wanted to grind and wanted to close out the game.”
Florida did grind out a win in as tough a game as the Gators have had all year long.
“That’s the most physical team we’ve played all year,” said Green. “They’re a good defensive team. Give them credit. They may not have a lot of size, but they make you play their style and they’re good at it. We had the poise at the end and that’s the difference.”
Give credit to Donovan and his staff for adjusting the offense to make it work in the second half. Whereas the Gators couldn’t score down low in the first half, they made the right passes and got to the right spots on the floor that they could score in the second half.
“This game was all about positioning,” said Green. “They were going to try to force us to run our offense where we didn’t want to. In the second half we did a good job of getting our position, catching the ball where we wanted it and then making plays.”
Florida’s win was as much about patience and adjustments as it was about determination to fight through whatever Purdue threw at the Gators. The Gators knew it would be physical and knew it was going to be tough, but in the end they had what it takes to survive and move on.
“I have a lot of respect for those guys [Purdue],” said Noah. “I think that it was just a war out there. We did what we had to do to win.”