Gators get groove back


Published: Monday, March 5, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 5, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Questions surrounded Florida during its recent two-week stretch of subpar basketball.

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UF junior Joakim Noah goes up for two against Kentucky's Derrick Jasper.

TRACY WILCOX/ The Gainesville Sun

Were the Gators tired? Uninspired? Or had other teams simply figured Florida out?

Some answers came Sunday at the O'Connell Center. Behind balanced scoring and a commitment to defense, the Gators resembled the team that made a national championship run a season ago with an 85-72 win over visiting Kentucky.

Florida (26-5, 13-3 SEC) finished the season undefeated at home for the first time since 1993-94 and became the first SEC team to beat Kentucky six straight times.

"We wanted to go out with a bang," said junior point guard Taurean Green, one of five Florida players in double figures with 17 points.

This was a wallop.

Noah had 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Al Horford finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds for his 13th double-double of the season. Walter Hodge scored 15 points off the bench, hitting all five of his shots, and Lee Humphrey, honored before the game on senior day, chipped in with 11 points.

Florida outrebounded Kentucky 35-23, scoring 12 second-chance points off 12 offensive rebounds.

"We just stayed aggressive," said Horford, who scored his 1,000th career point in the closing minutes. "It was a big key to the game to get in there and get offensive rebounds. We did that."

The game turned when Florida turned up its defense. Tied 43-43 at halftime, Florida held Kentucky to one basket through the first 6:39 of the second half.

Horford set the tone for the stretch by swatting away a shot from Kentucky forward Bobby Perry, who burned Florida for 16 of his team-high 18 points in the first half. During the defensive stand, Florida held Kentucky to 1-of-5 shooting and forced four turnovers.

"They played excellent defense in the second half, not only on me, just the whole team period," Perry said. "They really got out and pressured the ball, pushed us out of our stuff and didn't allow us to get great looks."

Kentucky (20-10, 9-7) was able to get better looks in the first half, scoring 14 points off nine Florida turnovers.

"We did a much better job defending," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I thought in the first half we did a good job defending, but we just had so many turnovers and it created some open-floor situations. We had some turnovers too in the second half, but they just weren't as loud."

Hodge and Green hit consecutive 3-pointers to put Florida up 56-45. From there, Florida turned to Noah, who showed signs of regaining his lost energy. Noah had four dunks and two putbacks in the second half, including a pretty move around the baseline past Kentucky center Randolph Morris.

"People are going to say things," Noah said. "Sometimes, the media, it's like poison. At the end of the day, you play for your family and for your team. I felt like today I was able to get some baskets because of my teammates."

With Morris in foul trouble, Florida pounded the ball inside to Noah and Horford throughout the game.

"They were just all over the boards," Perry said. "It felt like their big men had something to prove. We felt like we kind of outplayed them down there (in Lexington)."

Florida also broke out its recent shooting funk, hitting 64 percent from the floor. The Gators were 9-of-17 from 3-point range after going 19-of-70 from beyond the arc in their previous four games.

Green was 3-of-4 from 3-point range. Humphrey was 3-of-7, including a deep 3-pointer that padded the Florida lead to 69-57.

"It was probably the best game from our guards in the past couple of weeks," Donovan said.

The impressive performance, combined with recent losses by UCLA and North Carolina, have helped Florida regain some lost momentum in its quest for a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators will begin defense of its SEC Tournament title Friday night at the Georgia Dome against the winner of Georgia and Auburn.

"It's the start of a new season," Donovan said. "These kids are SEC champs but mentally they have to shut down and get that focus of where we are and what we need to do better."

Going into the postseason with a win was an important first step.

"It really comes down to helping each other out," Horford said. "When we're playing like that, we can be a pretty tough team."

Contact Kevin Brockway at 374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com.

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