Defensive effort, toughness carry UF past ’Cats


Published: Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 9:13 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 9:13 p.m.

Admit it, you didn’t think they had it in them.

Neither did I.

Oh, I certainly thought Florida could beat Kentucky on Saturday. They probably should have beaten them in Lexington earlier in the year.

So this wasn’t some monumental upset. It wasn’t even an upset as Florida was favored by 4½ points.

But the way they won.

With defense.

With physical play.

With grit.

Just six days earlier, Tennessee came into the O’Connell Center and punched Florida in the mouth. The Gators backed down.

On Saturday, Kentucky came in with hacking limbs, hand-checks and chest-bumps.

Florida didn’t back down.

Instead, they took a lead and never lost it. They took away the 3-point shot that has been killing them. They made Jodie Meeks, the best pure shooter in the league, make only a third of his shots.

Maybe it was one of those days where they refused to lose in Walter Hodge’s last home game. Or maybe they learned a lesson against Tennessee. Because late in the season, these games happen. Officials tend to let the players decide the game.

And if you flinch, you’re going down.

“I made the comment to the officials,” said Billy Donovan, “that we were in the wrong stadium. We needed to move across the street.”

It was that physical, especially in the first half when only four fouls were called. On one of them, Ray Shipman had to be thrown into the baseline press table for a foul to be called.

But that’s the key — you have to play the way the game is being called. And Florida did.

“I think we just had the mindset that we were going to guard,” said Dan Werner, who had four steals. “We saw what happened the last three games when we tried to win with our offense.”

In those three losses, Florida gave up an average of 80 points a game. On Saturday, the Gators gave up 53.

And even thought it turned into a Big Ten game that was hard to watch at times, when that happens a team has to respond. We haven’t seen that from this team this season.

We saw it Saturday on a day when Florida had to win.

Now, maybe they understand how you win.

Just look at what happened down the stretch.

Florida forced a shot-clock violation with 3:05 to play. Alex Tyus got a big shot block on Meeks with less than a minute to play. And Hodge made the play of the game, stealing the ball from Ramon Harris and — with the help of official Anthony Jordan’s kick save — drove to a huge basket.

Look, I’m not going to sit here and say Kentucky didn’t help. The Wildcats took 30 shots in the first half and 26 of them were by Patrick Patterson and Meeks. Patterson attempted 16 shots in the first half, one in the second. Baffling.

And after Meeks hit a 3-pointer early in the second half, he felt the brunt of Billy Gillispie’s wrath on the sidelines.

“Meeks and I were standing there after the timeout and he said his coach told him not to shoot anymore,” Shipman said.

Doubly baffling.

But we all knew that the key to beating Kentucky is to defend it’s two stars. That’s no secret. Meeks and Patterson combined for 31 points but needed 35 shots to get them. The Gators did a tremendous job of keeping Meeks from getting a lot of open looks, even employing a box-and-one defense at one point.

Maybe these Gators get it now. Maybe it’s not too late.

“We have wandering minds,” Donovan said. “We have a difficult time as a team looking to do what we need to do collectively. But we were locked in (Saturday).”

We’ll see how the momentum of this win carries over to Tampa and the SEC Tournament. But on this day, it wasn’t about seeding or the bubble or RPI.

It was about beating Kentucky with great defense.

I didn’t think they had it in them.

Admit it, neither did you.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or dooleyp@gvillesun.com.

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