Pick Your Poison! Humphrey Makes Ducks Pay

ST. LOUIS, MO — Ernie Kent intended to give Florida some three-point shots. It was a gamble but one he was willing to take since he had to make a compromise somewhere. The choice was to get killed on the inside by 6-11 Joakim Noah and 6-10 Al Horford or take his chances with Florida’s outside shooters. All things considered, taking the inside away seemed the safe strategy.

Part one of the strategy worked. He was very happy that his Oregon Ducks held Noah and Horford to a combined 21 points. There aren’t many coaches that wouldn’t take those numbers any day of the week. You figure you hold Noah and Horford to 21 you’re in pretty good shape but the take out the big guys strategy only works if the guys that shoot the threes aren’t burying one shot after another.

Ernie Kent’s game plan never counted on Lee Humphrey having one of those games when he was on radar-lock (7-13 from beyond the arc and 23 points) and he never counted on the Gators launching 24 three-pointers, much less making 11 of them. The things Ernie Kent didn’t count on are why the Florida Gators are Midwest Regional champions and on their way to their second straight Final Four. The beauty of this Florida team, you see, is that you can plan and plot all day long to take one phase of the game away from the Gators but there’s always a price to pay if you do.

“Our whole team can score and that’s what makes us tough to guard,” said Humphrey, who came through with his second 20-plus points game of the season.

Oregon paid a heavy price for leaving Humphrey open Sunday afternoon.

“When you look back, two is much better than a three, particularly if you have seven threes versus seven twos,” said Kent after the Gators (33-5) earned their trip to Atlanta for the Final Four with an 85-77 win over the Ducks (29-8) before a crowd of 25, 947 at the Edward Jones Dome. “You’re still minus some points in your favor on that.”

Oregon, which everybody knew coming in was going to launch a bunch of three-pointers, knocked down eight three-balls, which is pretty close to what the Ducks do every game. Florida got 33 points off of three-pointers, a nine-point differential, and the Gators outscored the Ducks from the foul line 28-15. That was enough to offset the fact Oregon shot the ball pretty well (19-36) on two-point shots. Florida scored on only 12 two-point shots in the whole game.

“It was a game when we were going to have to make some three-point shots and not just play pound the ball inside,” said Florida Coach Billy Donovan, whose Gators will be playing in their third Final Four in the last eight seasons. “It was a game where our bigs didn’t score a lot of points and our guards really shot the ball well and it was a game when our bigs got their front line in foul trouble — (Malik) Hairston was in foul trouble and (Maarty) Leunen was in foul trouble — so our bigs did a great job but they didn’t get a lot of touches because of the way they were playing.”

Humphrey added, “They really wanted to take away our inside today. The past couple of games they’ve taken away the perimeter. Our guys do a great job of taking advantage of what the defense gives us. Today it was the perimeter jump shot.”

The way Oregon played the Gators was the fourth different defensive approach Florida has seen in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Maybe the changes in strategy have kept the games closer than they were last year when the Gators marched through the NCAA Tournament with relative ease (only one close game out of six) because this year’s path to the Final Four has been bumpier than last season but give Florida credit for figuring out what opponents are doing and finding ways to win.

“We’ve played against a lot of different styles,” said Donovan. “When we played last year we played against a lot of styles that were different than Butler, different from Purdue. Oregon was more up and down the floor. It’s different teams, a different journey, a different challenge. There’s different things you have to do. We won the Purdue game and maybe won the Butler game with our free throw shooting. We maybe won this game with our three-point shooting. It’s been different things that have helped our team at different points in time during the year. I can tell you, to get to this point it is so hard. To get there one time just to get there, never mind back to back.”

Getting to the Final Four for the second straight year is a marvelous accomplishment. The Gators will face UCLA in the semifinals next Saturday in Atlanta and it will be the second straight trip to the Final Four for the Bruins, who lost to the Gators in the championship game last year.

“It was a lot harder this year [getting to the Final Four] just because night in and night out we get everybody’s best shot,” said Corey Brewer, whose stat line read 14 points, five rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals. “People play us totally different each game, trying to find a way to beat us so we have to adjust.”

Butler felt confident that it could take away Florida’s perimeter game Friday night and play Noah and Horford straight up in the blocks. Florida killed Butler on the inside as Horford and Noah combined to shoot 21 free throws while fouling out the Butler big men. Humphrey only shot five times against Butler but Green did get loose to can five of his eight three-point attempts. Green continued his hot shooting from the arc Sunday when he hit four of eight three-pointers and finished the game with 21 points. Green was named the Midwest Region’s Most Valuable Player.

Oregon thought seriously about taking Humphrey and Green out of the game while taking its chances on the inside with Horford and Noah but the Ducks decided to cut off the inside, figuring its guards were quick enough to help down low while still getting a hand in the face of Florida’s shooters.

“We talked about letting them beat us in fact with their big guys and taking the three-point shot,” said Kent. “We got caught up in a couple of rotations where they saw three-point shooters on the weak side. I thought we gave them too many three-point shots in the game.”

The strategy backfired because Florida hit its three-point shots and Noah and Horford were still able to get Oregon’s big guys in foul trouble. Maarty Leunen, Oregon’s 6-9 center, and Malik Hairston, the Ducks’ 6-6 power forward, went to the bench with five fouls as did 6-6 backup center Joevan Catron. Noah, who had 14 points and 14 rebounds, went to the foul line seven times while Horford, who had six points and seven rebounds, shot eight free throws.

Humphrey and Green combined for seven three-pointers in the first half including a three-in-a-row frenzy in the final four minutes that propelled the Gators to a 40-38 lead at the half. That little hot streak was most important because it offset Oregon’s Aaron Brooks, sidelined with foul trouble for eight minutes, came back off the bench to light up Florida for Oregon’s final 11 points of the half.

Brooks was able to get hot quickly because Oregon was successful spacing the floor and creating space for the senior guard to maneuver.

“They really spaced our bigs and tried to beat our guards off the dribble,” said Donovan. “In the first half we had a very difficult time with their speed and they got to the rim and got some layups. As the game went on our guys on help side started to adjust a little better to know when to help and when to stay at home. You’re not going to take away all the threes but against Butler and now against Oregon, we’ve made more threes than those two teams.”

Florida made more threes than Oregon because the Gators were able to put the clamps on 5-6 point guard Tajuan Porter, who came into the game averaging 14 points a game. Porter lit up UNLV for 33 points Friday night including eight three-pointers. He missed his first eight three-pointers against the Gators. He didn’t knock down a three until the final minute of the game.

“They always had a defender on me,” said Porter, whose 10 points came off 2-12 shooting and four free throws. “Sometimes it was a longer defender or a taller defender on me. They had pretty good shot pressure.”

Humphrey played Porter straight up most of the game but he had a lot of help from Noah and Horford, who would leave their man and run out at Porter to force him deeper than he wanted to be.

“I feel like we did a good job on him,” said Horford. “He’s such a good player off the dribble so we had to make sure we contained him. He’s so quick. It was a total team effort that we were on him like that.”

When Humphrey hit his last two three-pointers of the first half, Brewer figured it was going to be another one of those games when Humphrey can’t seem to miss. He had a game like that against South Carolina earlier in the year when he lit up the Gamecocks for 27 points. He had a game like that against UCLA in last year’s NCAA title game, too.

“When Lee got the ball, after he made the first two I just threw my hands up with the three-point signal because I knew it was going in,” said Brewer, whose stat line read 14 points, five rebounds, three assists, two blocked shots and two steals.

Florida picked up from the outside where it left off at halftime. Humphrey gave the Gators some breathing room with back to back threes that stretched the Gators lead to 10 points (67-57) but that his second three-ball with 8:16 left in the game was the last time Florida would score from the field. The rest of the game was played out on the foul line. Oregon gambled again, this time figuring the Gators weren’t going to hit all their free throws and they were right about that. Florida was only 18-28 down the stretch but the Gators hit just enough of their foul shots to keep the lead.

When the Gators couldn’t convert at the foul line, Oregon made up ground, particularly in the final minute when Porter hit two threes and Churchill Oguchi came off the bench to knock down another but it was too little too late. The damage had already been done by Humphrey from the three-point stripe and Oregon didn’t have enough time to make up the lost ground.

“Give credit to them,” said Leunen, who was held to five points. “They made the shots. It’s tough to guard them at every position. We knew that coming into the game.”

Because the Gators had the weapons at all five possessions, they advanced to a familiar venue (Georgia Dome, where they’ve won two of the last three SEC Tournaments) and a familiar stage in the Final Four. They know a repeat national title is within their grasp but they won’t start thinking about titles until later. Right now, the focus is totally on UCLA in the semifinals.

“We’re not satisfied right now,” said Noah. “We’re trying to get another one and to get another one we have to focus all our energy on UCLA and not focus on the circus that’s going around.”

GAME NOTES: Humphrey and Green were Florida’s only selections to the All-Tournament team. Porter, Brooks and Hairston all made it from Oregon … Humphrey broke the Bret Nelson’s school record for three-pointers in a career. Humphrey has 279 threes for his career while Nelson finished his career with 274 … Noah’s 14 rebounds were the most he’s grabbed since the FAMU game back in December … In the NCAA Tournament, four opponents are a combined 26-79 on three pointers (32.8 percent). 

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.