Beasts of the East


Published: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The shots clanged all over the place. Some bounded off the back of the rim. Some didn't even reach the rim.

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Florida's Joakim Noah goes up for two of his 19 points Wednesday against Vanderbilt's Ted Skuchas at the O'Connell Center.

TRACY WILCOX/ The Gainesville Sun

No. 1 Florida, which had been shooting like the high school team from Pleasantville through its first six Southeastern Conference games, shot just 29 percent in the first half Wednesday against a Vanderbilt team that contested every basket inside and closed off the 3-point line.

But the 24th-ranked Commodores could only sustain their defensive energy for a half. Florida overcame an 11-point first-half deficit with a 13-0 run to start the second half, then gradually pulled away for a 74-64 win before 12,370 at the O'Connell Center.

The Gators (20-2, 7-0 SEC) overcame the early offensive struggles to win their 13 straight and reach 20 wins before February for the first time in school history. With Wisconsin's loss at Indiana, Florida now owns the longest winning streak in Division I.

Joakim Noah kept Florida in the game early, scoring 11 of his team-high 19 points in the first half. Senior guard Lee Humphrey did the damage late, hitting four of his five 3-pointers in the second half.

"We would like to shoot it well all of the time," said Humphrey, who continued his current shooting tear by going 5-for-8 from beyond the arc. "But it's good for our team to come out like that and show that we can win a game with defense and rebounding."

Taurean Green added 13 points and four assists and Al Horford posted his eighth double-double of the season with 12 points and 12 rebounds.

After jumping ahead 41-30 at halftime, Vanderbilt was held to 23 points on just 34.6 percent shooting past intermission. Vanderbilt senior guard Derrick Byars led all scorers, scoring 14 of his 21 in the first half.

"We knew we could not become complacent in the second half," Byars said. "Every time I watch them, they always make their strongest run the first four or five minutes in the second half."

The 13-0 second-half run included a bizarre stretch in which three technicals were whistled. Green got the first after voicing his displeasure to Mike Thibodeaux over a non-call, but Vanderbilt senior Dan Cage missed both free throws.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings then got a technical and assistant coach King Rice was ejected after jawing with crew chief Doug Shows over a missed call when it appeared Walter Hodge touched the ball before it went out of bounds. The call went to Florida on the inbounds play.

Green, who had hit a 3-pointer earlier to cut Vanderbilt's lead to 41-35, made three of four free throws to pull Florida within 41-40. On the inbounds, Green sank another 3-pointer to help Florida reclaim the lead 43-41.

"We could smell blood," Noah said.

Hodge and Shan Foster received double-technicals a few minutes later, raising the total to five for the game

"It was a tough game to officiate," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Both teams were playing physical. ... I wouldn't have liked to have given up three free points. Obviously, there was a momentum shift there."

From there, Florida turned to Humphrey, who hit three straight 3-pointers to extend Florida's lead to 54-47. Humphrey's fifth 3-pointer, with 2:56 remaining, put Florida ahead 70-59 and essentially closed the game out.

"Anytime you can get in that kind of a rhythm, as a shooter, that's what you're looking for," Humphrey said.

Humphrey attempted just two 3-pointers in the first half, indicative of Florida's struggles to move the ball early. Florida began the game trying to attack inside, but missed some close shots and took some wild, ill-advised drives to the basket.

"We were playing too much one-on-one, off the dribble," Donovan said. "And when we missed shots we started to let it affect our defense."

Florida, which came into the game leading the nation in field goal percentage at 54.4 percent, missed its first six shots and 10 of its first 12 attempts. The Commodores took advantage, jumping to an early 16-9 lead on a George Drake layup.

The Gators responded with a 9-0 run, going ahead 18-16 on a Brewer 3-pointer. From there, Vanderbilt took control, with Byars becoming a factor. Byars scored consecutive baskets on the break, then hit a pull-up jumper to put Vanderbilt up 26-18.

After being fouled in the lane by Corey Brewer, Byars hit a pair of free throws to extend the Vanderbilt lead to 35-23, its largest of the half.

"He's been killing everyone in the league," said Horford, who guarded Byars for extended stretches. "He's a tough player. I just tried to keep him in front and the rest of the guys did a good job helping out in the second half."

Humphrey pulled Florida within 39-30 with a 3-pointer with 34.5 seconds remaining in the half. But Vanderbilt reserve Alan Metcalfe was fouled underneath the basket by Florida freshman Marreese Speights with 1.9 seconds left. Metcalfe made both free throws to put Vanderbilt ahead 41-30 at halftime.

The 11-point deficit was Florida's largest at halftime this season. Florida finished 8-of-19 from 3-point range after going just 2-of-9 from beyond the arc in the first half.

"We have been on fire lately," Horford said. "We had to dig deep and win the game with defense and rebounding. That's what we did."

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

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