Gator men win SEC title


Published: Thursday, March 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 3:31 p.m.
Before the season began, Florida junior Joakim Noah was adamant about one of his team's goals, "We want to win the SEC," Noah said. "It's the only thing we haven't done since we've been here."
Mission accomplished. Through some awkward offensive stretches, the third-ranked Gators beat South Carolina 63-49 to clinch the league title.
With Vanderbilt's 83-70 loss at Mississippi State, Florida (25-3, 12-1) won the league title outright for the first time since 1989 and the fourth time in school history. Florida shared SEC titles in 2000 and 2001.
Al Horford led Florida with 20 points, with senior Chris Richard adding a season-high 14 points off the bench. Noah had six points and 13 rebounds, joining Taurean Green and Corey Brewer as the third Florida player to surpass the 1,000-point career mark this season.
"It's big," Horford said. "It hasn't really sunk in yet, but to win the SEC, that's something that we've wanted to do from the beginning."
The Gators overcame a season-low 41.4-percent shooting night by clamping down defensively. After allowing Vanderbilt to shoot 57.1 percent from the floor Saturday, Florida held South Carolina to 35.7 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from 3-point range.
"It was not one of our better offensive performances," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I felt their gameplan coming in was to take away Taurean Green, take away Lee Humphrey. Noah and Horford had all the opportunities in front. Joakim missed some opportunities inside, but two of our three post players scored. The ball went inside to Richard and Horford and they did a good job."
South Carolina freshman Brandis Raley-Ross cut Florida's lead to 50-41 with 4:52 remaining, providing a brief chance to crash the eventual post-game party. But Noah tipped in a Horford miss and Horford followed with an inside basket to extend the Florida lead to 54-41 with 2:40 left.
Florida out-rebounded South Carolina 45-29, grabbing 13 offensive boards.
"They are not a very physical team," Noah said. "I felt like I missed some opportunities inside, but we're doing what we have to do to win games. That's what matters."
Humphrey padded the lead to 61-47 with a long 3-pointer as the shot clock wound down with 48 seconds left.
Down 8-6 early, Florida took control of the game with a 20-0 run, holding the Gamecocks scoreless for nearly a 10-minute stretch. Humphrey blanketed South Carolina point guard Tre Kelley throughout the stand, forcing him into an array of wild shots.
"I just tried to keep him in front of me," Humphrey said. "He's a tough player and our big guys did a good job helping and making sure they didn't get any second-chance shots."
Kelley led the Gamecocks (13-13, 3-10) with 19 points on 8-of-20 shooting "We tried to trap him," Donovan said. "He's a guy that accounts for 55 percent of their points on scoring and assists. Lee did a good job on him, as he did with (Alabama point guard) Ronald Steele. I've always felt that he's as good a defender as we've had in this program."
South Carolina shot just 5 of 26 in the first half and made no 3-pointers in five attempts. Florida led 30-13 at halftime, holding a team to the fewest points in a half this season.
If anything, the sellout crowd of 12,076 at the O'Connell Center seemed surprised Florida clinched the league so quickly. Many left before the postgame celebration that featured players cutting down the nets.
"When you leave early," Noah said, "sometimes, you miss out."

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