ATLANTA, GA — So, you were wondering about these Florida Gators, asking yourself if the Gator Boyz really were back after last Sunday’s 85-72 win over Kentucky. Maybe you felt a little more proof was needed before pronouncing the patient healthy once again. We give you Exhibit A: Florida 74, Georgia 57 in the quarter-finals of the SEC Basketball Tournament at the Georgia Dome.
The win was the seventh straight win in SEC Tournament play for the Gators (27-5) who are not only gunning for their third straight SEC Tournament championship but also for a number one seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Georgia (18-13) will probably do its post season in the National Invitational Tournament. The Gators play in game two of Saturday’s semifinals at the Georgia Dome at 3:45 p.m.
It was 17-0 before the Gators even broke a sweat. There are people doing long stretches of time in prison for less than what the Florida Gators did to Georgia in the first five minutes. Florida couldn’t miss and the Bulldogs couldn’t throw one in the ocean if they were standing on the end of a thousand-foot pier. Florida hit 11 of its first 14 shots. By the time the Bulldogs got one to fall, there had been 12 straight misses.
“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said Joakim Noah, who finished the night with seven points, seven rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals. “I think we really wanted to show people that we’re the best team.”
Corey Brewer went dunk, jumper and dunk to close out an 11-0 run that made it 28-4 with 10:20 remaining. At that point of the half, the Bulldogs were 2-23 from the field. They finished the half 7-37. Florida’s onslaught was so prolific that the Gators even got the first three-pointer they’ve had out of freshman Dan Werner since he knocked one down against Liberty on January 3. Sure, it did a victory lap and caromed off the square on the backboard before it went in, but it looks like a swish in the scorebook. That’s the kind of night it was for the Gators.
And it was exactly what the doctor ordered. After that mini-slump when they lost three out of four games, half the country thought the Gators had finally caved in to the enormous pressure that’s been on them since last April when they won the NCAA Tournament. There was all sorts of speculation that the Gators had peaked way too early and they had tired legs. There was talk that the 0-Fours, roommates and best friends for three years, were at each other’s throats over what could be termed a domestic issue of sorts. All the talk, all the speculation, all the rumors were put to rest and the best basketball team in the country put on a clinic. They moved the ball and found the open man with such sudden, swift passes that Georgia’s defense rarely got a hand in their faces, at least in the early going. They defended the paint area with a vengeance and there was no such thing as an uncontested three-pointer by Georgia.
This is the way the Gators played when they ran the table in the NCAA Tournament last year. You remember that, don’t you? Strangling defense, a dunkathon, easy baskets because they shared the ball so well that every shot seemed like it was wide open.
Ancient history, you say? Well, how about the way the Gators played against Ohio State. You do remember that one, don’t you? The Buckeyes with all their McDonald’s All-Americans, player of the last two millenniums Greg Oden and all the Dickie V hype you could possibly stand in a 24-hour period showed up at the O-Dome back in December. That was a precursor to Glendale. Just like the Ohio State football team discovered what it’s like to be sliced, diced and exposed, the Buckeye basketball team got taken to school by Florida’s veteran Gators, who when they’re on their game, are as good a defensive unit as you will find in all of college basketball.
Those same Gators that whacked Ohio State at the knees were on the floor Friday night. If you were a Gator this was a work of art. If you were a Bulldog, this was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Gator version for as well as the Gators were playing offensively in those first five minutes, Florida’s defense was really the story. Florida wasn’t just intense. The Gators were breathing fire and spitting bolts. This was toss them to the ground and stomp the life out of them intense.
“Tournaments like this are all about defense,” said Noah. “You’re not always going to hit shots. Even in the first half I feel like there were a lot of shots that could have gone down, like some threes — Lee missed a couple and Taurean missed a couple — that we normally make but our defense has to stay consistent.”
How suffocating and intimidating was Florida’s defensive effort? Twice in the first half, 6-8 Dave Bliss went up for a point-blank jumper from maybe two feet away. He expected Joakim Noah to stand in his way the first time and Al Horford the second. Noah and Horford never left their feet, choosing instead to raise their arms straight up over their heads. Bliss airmailed both shots.
Georgia guards Levi Stukes and Sundiata Gaines, the Bulldogs top offensive threats were held to a combined eight points on 3-24 shooting (12.5 percent). Gaines went 2-13 and Stukes went 1-11. Georgia relies on Stukes and Gaines to find the range from the three-point line, but Friday night they were suffocated. Whenever they tried to load one up from anywhere on the court there was a hand in their faces. Combined, they were 1-11 from the three-point stripe.
“I think we’re pretty hard to beat when we have defensive intensity like that,” said senior Chris Richard, who came off the bench to score five points and grab four rebounds. “I think it’s been a little while since we came out with that kind of intensity on defense. What did they shoot? Something like 18 percent (it was 18.9) in the first half? That’s unheard of.”
For the game, Georgia improved to shoot 33.8 percent (24-71) but the Bulldogs were just 2-18 from the three-point stripe. It was a miserable night.
“I think everybody was keyed in on what they were supposed to do and we executed really well,” said Al Horford, who scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds. “We just wanted to make them take tough shots and we didn’t want to give them any open looks.”
Florida, the nation’s top team in field goal percentage, shot a very efficient 53.5 percent from the field (23-43). Florida shot just 7-20 from the three-point line but in the first five minutes when the Gators were on edge and going for the jugular, Humphrey knocked down two long range bombs and Green added another one.
It really didn’t matter that the Gators let off the gas just a little bit in the final seven minutes of the first half. The Gators scored only two points over the last 7:19 of the half but by then the damage was already done. It was 35-14 at the half and all Georgia could do the rest of the way was play for pride and hope it would be respectable by the time it was all over.
To Georgia’s credit, the Bulldogs played hard in the second half and actually got the score within 13 points but that’s because the Gators got bored. Still, the intensity of those first five minutes when the Gators put the game away was the difference in the game. Horford knows that Florida really can’t afford to put it in cruise control the rest of the way.
“If we can keep that intensity level an entire game we’ll be a tough team to beat,” he said. “We haven’t been able to do that yet, but I hopefully we’ll do it soon.”
Expect Billy Donovan to get all over the Gators case in the pre-game meetings Saturday when they show the film of the Friday night game and implement the game plan for the semifinals, but you have to get on them for something, right?
Green finished the game with 19 points, his second straight big scoring game after a stretch of four in a row when he never made double figures. Brewer chipped in with 15.
“One down, two more to go,” said Richard.
The Gators have already earned a ring for the regular season SEC championship. A third straight ring for winning the SEC Tournament is within two games and then there’s that second straight NCAA championship ring that they would love to win. The championship rings are rewards for living in the moment, playing each game possession by possession.
“All that is nice and it’s our goal but we’ve can’t look past the next game,” said Noah. “One game at a time and then move on. It’s do or die time now. You lose and you have to take off that uniform and you don’t put it on again until the NCAA and then you lose and it’s off for the rest of the season. It’s over. The goal is win, move on to the next game and keep playing.”