Gators make best of fresh start in conference play
Published: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 9, 2005 at 12:05 a.m.
It can change so quickly. A week ago, Florida was lost without its leading scorer and at a loss to explain the lethargic play of its senior big man.
Everything came around, just in time.
Florida (9-3) put together its most inspired performance of the season, snapping Arkansas' eight-game winning streak with an 82-74 win at the O'Connell Center to open Southeastern Conference play 1-0 and re-establish some confidence after a shaky non-conference start.
"I was proud of how our guys played," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "How they responded, their resiliency and the way they worked to get better on both ends of the floor."
Florida made up for the absence of leading scorer Matt Walsh (high ankle sprain) with balance. All five starters reached double figures. Senior forward David Lee led the way with 17 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Anthony Roberson added 15, despite going 1 of 5 from 3-point range.
For Lee, it was an answer to a wake-up call Donovan sent during the week, when he scolded his third-year starter for not being intense enough in a 4-point, 2-rebound performance against Florida State.
"I needed to step up and answer the bell," Lee said. "I apologized to everyone during the week for the way I played. I need to play with that intensity and aggressiveness for the rest of the season."
Florida has won four straight SEC openers.
"We knew we had to leave the past behind us," Roberson said. "We're starting a whole new season. Everything is behind us. Everything that's happened before now doesn't really matter."
Florida led 31-26 after a grinding, defensive first half, then built a 17-point second-half lead before holding on late. Arkansas cut Florida's lead to 78-72 on an Olu Famutimi 3-pointer with 35.4 seconds left, but freshman Al Horford made two big free throws with 32.9 seconds left to extend the lead back to eight. Michael Jones then missed a 3-point attempt for Arkansas and Corey Brewer was fouled on the rebound. Brewer made 1 of 2 free throws and Taurean Green made 1 of 2 free throws to close out the game.
The free throw shooting late may have made the 11,021 at the O-Dome a bit nervous (Florida made 4 of 10 in the final two minutes), but Florida built enough of a cushion by shooting 14-18 from the floor in the second half to finish 59.5 percent for the game.
Arkansas (13-2) came into the game 10th in the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding teams to 37 percent from the floor.
Sophomore Ronnie Brewer led the Razorbacks with 20 points. Point guard Eric Ferguson added 16 and Famutimi scored 10 of his 13 in the second half. The loss was Arkansas' 10th straight on the road in the SEC.
"We didn't bring our defense from Fayetteville," Arkansas coach Stan Heath said. "If you don't defend, you don't have a chance to win on the road in the SEC."
Florida's defense sparked a 14-2 second-half run that broke the game open. Roberson began it with two free throws. After a Feguson layup, sophomore guard Lee Humphrey made the second of his three 3-pointers from the left side to put Florida up 48-40. Brewer then missed, but Chris Richard scored on a dunk on a feed from Horford to put Florida up 10.
Lee then scored on a reverse layup off a Brewer turnover. And off a long rebound by Corey Brewer, Florida found Humphrey wide open in the left corner. Humphrey knocked down the three to put Florida up 55-40.
"Our defense sparked our offense," said Corey Brewer, who matched a career-high with 11 points. "We were able to get some points in transition."
Humphrey finished with 10 points, and Horford had 12 points and 3 blocks.
Florida looked as crisp executing in the halfcourt, finishing with 17 assists and 12 turnovers. The five days of practice time since the Florida State game helped. Donovan said he spent two of those days working exclusively on halfcourt offense.
"They were pretty much grind them out, halfcourt practices," Donovan said. "We didn't even get into our transition offense until the day before the game."
The emphasis early was to get the ball inside to Lee, who scored seven of Florida's first 15 points. Lee attacked the Arkansas frontline, which started freshmen Steven Hill and Charles Thomas.
"I remembered how hard it was for me in the SEC as a freshman and a sophomore," Lee said. "I knew that was going to be an area where we had an advantage."
A Lee turn-around jump hook put Florida up 15-10, but Arkansas responded with eight straight points for its lone lead of the game. A Ferguson layup put the Razorbacks up 18-15.
Florida reclaimed the lead after a Richard dunk and a Cornelius Ingram 3-pointer that took a generous bounce off the front rim and the glass. The teams exchanged buckets and free throws for the remainder of the half, with Famutimi scoring on a layup at the buzzer to pull Arkansas within 31-26 at halftime.
Florida held Arkansas to 37 percent from the floor in the first half.
"For the first 10 minutes there I thought we played defense as well as we have the entire season," Donovan said.
Now, the challenge for Lee and the rest of Florida is to match the intensity Wednesday, when Florida plays its first SEC road game at Auburn.
"That's something, as a coach, I have no control over," Donovan said. "That's something that's got to come from within each and every one of our guys."
You can reach Kevin Brockway by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 374-5054.
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