Horford’s Return Sparks Gators Over OSU

Billy Donovan was convinced that Al Horford wasn’t going to play Saturday when the fourth-ranked Florida Gators squared off with the third-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. What Donovan saw in practice Friday told him there was no way Horford could play effectively but Taurean Green knew better. Horford’s roommate for three years, Green knows Big Al like a brother.

“I knew Al was going to play the last three days,” said Green with an impish grin. Green saw Horford moving around gingerly at practice Friday, still hampered by the effects of a high ankle sprain. He saw the exact thing that Donovan saw — and that wasn’t good — but deep down, Green already knew the answer. He knew that somehow, someway, Horford was going to play.

“I just know the competitor that Al is,” Green explained. “I knew he wanted to play this game really bad. He was questionable but I knew Al wanted to get back to play this game.”

The competitor in Horford and Florida’s trainer Duke Werner pulled off the improbable between Friday evening and Saturday afternoon and that’s one of the chief reasons the Gators (11-2) blew the doors off Ohio State, 86-60, before a record O’Connell Center crowd of 12,621 and a national television audience on CBS. Horford came off the bench to score 11 points, grab 11 rebounds, block three shots and hand out three assists, just the lift the Gators needed to run the Buckeyes out of the gym.

Ohio State Coach Thad Matta was impressed with Horford’s game but he wasn’t the least bit surprised that the big guy played.

“We felt he was going to play and obviously he showed that he’s one of the best big men in the country,” said Matta, whose team dropped to 10-2 on the season. “I thought he was impressive. We prepared all week as if he was going to play.”

At practice Friday, Horford looked just fine in shooting drills and warm-ups but once he got involved in some light scrimmaging with contact, all bets were off. He became tentative and began favoring the damaged ankle.

“The minute we started to bang and have contact, he looked awful,” said Donovan. “I talked to the trainer [Werner] and he agreed that if he was going to move around like that and protect it he can’t play.”

Somewhere between practice Friday and game-time on Saturday, a whole lot changed. Werner kept treating the injured ankle and by Saturday morning, Horford felt the ankle was improved enough that he could help the team.

“It was more of the team needs me and I have to make myself available,” said Horford, who credited Werner for getting him ready. “I just had to play through it. Our trainers helped me get ready for that and my teammates were very supportive.”

Donovan had already consulted with team doctors that told him that there was no risk that Horford would damage the ankle further.

“They told me there is no greater risk if you play him against Ohio State or if you wait until the 30th to play him,” said Donovan. “They felt that from a healing standpoint that he was healed and that he was okay to play.”

Donovan decided that he wouldn’t start Horford, but instead would bring him off the bench within a couple of minutes after the game started. Having the 6-10, 250-pound junior was critical because it gave Donovan the three-man rotation he needed in the post to counter Ohio State’s touted 7-1 freshman Greg Oden.

Florida’s game plan was to overwhelm Oden by going straight at him. Whether it was Horford, Chris Richard and Joakim Noah in the low blocks or Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer off the drive from the perimeter, Florida wanted to force Oden out of his comfort zone. At first the strategy seemed to play right into Ohio State’s hands as Oden blocked a couple of shots early and altered several others, but Florida wouldn’t back down. The Gators kept coming at him and eventually, the big guy wore down.

The three-man rotation in the post gave the Gators 22 points, 24 rebounds, six assists, six blocked shots and one steal. Noah contributed a solid seven points, nine rebounds, three blocked shots and four assists, while Richard had four points and four rebounds. Oden got only one point after halftime and finished with seven points, six rebounds and four blocked shots. By the time the game reached the final six minutes, it was obvious that he was gassed.

“When you have three big guys like that [Horford, Noah and Richard] it helps going against one,” said Donovan. “I don’t know that two would have been effective because Jo got into some foul trouble and so did Chris.”

With big guys occupying Oden, the whole floor opened up for Green, Brewer and Humphrey. They combined to hit 21 of their 34 shots, many of them off the drive. Even Humphrey, whose main job is to stretch defenses from the three-point stripe, got into the paint with three driving layups to go with two bombs from the outside. Humphrey’s dribble penetration opened up the passing lanes and he responded with five assists.

Green had a game-high 24 points, hitting all five of his two-point attempts and 4-7 from behind the three-point stripe. Brewer slashed his way to 18 points (7-13 shooting including 1-2 on three-pointers), five rebounds, three steals and three assists.

Florida put together two critical runs to control the game. The Gators went on a 15-0 tear in two and a half minutes in the first half to erase a two-point deficit for a 33-20 lead. Two Humphrey threes sandwiched one by Green to spark the run but the real signal of what was to come was evident on two plays.

With the Gators leading 23-20, Noah took a post at the high post, squared up and put the ball on the floor. Oden rotated over to help on defense but that opened the passing lane. Noah dumped down to Richard who dunked for a five-point lead with 5:27 left in the half. With the Gators ahead 26-20, Humphrey beat Mike Conley Jr. off the dribble, forcing Oden to help and that opened the lane for a perfect bounce pass to Noah who dunked with 4:15 left in the half.

Those two plays were indicative of the unselfishness that makes the Gators so difficult to defend. Florida finished the game with 18 assists on 35 made baskets and even with Oden an imposing presence, the Gators were able to score consistently on the inside.

Ohio State wouldn’t go away in the first half, trimming Florida’s lead to nine at the intermission, 38-29, and the Buckeyes scored the first nine points of the second half to tie the game at 38-38 but that’s when the Gators got their second wind.

Horford knocked down a 12-foot jumper off a pick and roll from Green with 17:21 remaining to put the Gators back in the lead at 40-38. Conley tied the game at 40 with a driving layup at the 17:04 mark but from that point on, it was all Gators. Florida went on a 31-7 run to blow the game wide open. Whether it was inside or outside or scoring off the defense, Florida was too hot for Ohio State to handle.

Ohio State tried to counter the Florida run at the three-point stripe but the Gators were simply too active with their perimeter defense. Open shots were tough to come by. Entering the game, the Buckeyes had taken at least 29 three-pointers in their 11 games. They only got 23 shots against the Gators and they made only seven (30.4 percent).

“The key for us tonight was defending the three-point line,” said Donovan. “They were making nine a game and I never look really at the number of three-point shots a team makes as much as the shooting percentage. They shot 30 percent from the three point line and they were a team coming into our game that shot about 42 percent.”

This was Florida’s most complete game of the season. The Gators shot 60.3 percent from the field (35-58), 50 percent from the three-point line (9-18) and they outrebounded the Buckeyes 43-25. It was the kind of game that characterized Florida’s run to the NCAA championship last spring.

“I think it was at another level than it was in April,” said Green. “We were more intense and more focused on our game plan and we executed it. It was a great team win. Everybody was clicking. We communicated our great, our passing was great … we did everything as a team.”

Donovan was pleased with the win but he tried to put it in perspective.

“It’s one game,” he said. “For our guys it’s a reminder of potentially how good we can be. It was good for us to play against a good quality team. We were not totally healthy but it’s not really any message. It’s one game, we had a very good night and our guys played well.”

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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.