Date story published: Monday, March 5, 2007
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida set a Southeastern Conference record for dominance against Kentucky yesterday. Fittingly, Florida's dominant play around the basket made that happen.
With Joakim Noah and Al Horford recording double-doubles, the Gators broke open a close game early in the second half and cruised to an 85-72 win. It was Florida's sixth straight victory over the Cats, something heretofore never achieved by a Southeastern Conference team. No league team had beaten UK five straight since Tennessee in 1977 before Florida continued its dominance this season.
"We felt their big men had something to prove," said forward Bobby Perry, who led UK with 20 points. "We outplayed them in Lexington. We felt like they had a little chip on their shoulders."
Noah, who snapped out of a recent funk with 17 points and 10 rebounds (his first double-double since Jan. 20), set the tone for Florida's big second half. In the first two minutes, he rebounded a Joe Crawford miss and dribbled unchallenged the length of the court for a one-man fast-break dunk.
Horford, whose 14 points and 10 rebounds marked his 13th double-double of the season, sparked a 9-0 run that put Florida in control.
With the Gators ahead 50-45, Horford ripped a rebound away from UK's Ramel Bradley. That led to a three-pointer by Walter Hodge, who scored 15 points off the Gators' bench.
On the next possession, the third of Florida's bruisers, Chris Richard, bodied Bradley out of bounds. The call for being on the line gave Florida the ball. Taurean Green hit another three-pointer, and Florida led 56-45 with 13:57 left. That marked Florida's first double-digit lead. UK got no closer than seven the rest of the way.
"I just thought they outmanned us," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. When asked how the Cats could combat such inside strength, he had a telling answer. "There's nothing you can do but go out and get bigger, stronger players."
Florida outrebounded UK 35-23 (matching the worst beating the Cats took this regular season). Fueled by four second-half dunks and a whopping 44 points in the paint, the Gators shot 64 percent. That marked the best accuracy by a UK opponent since Christian Laettner (10-for-10) and Duke shot 65.4 percent in the 1992 NCAA Tournament game.
"I thought we had a good game plan," Smith said. "We couldn't execute it, and we couldn't find a way to stop them from scoring."
Kentucky, which fell to 20-10 overall and 9-7 in the SEC, wasn't the only team with that problem. Florida came into the game leading the nation in shooting (52.5 percent). Horford became the fourth Gator starter to reach 1,000 points in his career. The exception, Lee Humphrey, scored 11 points to move within 24 of 1,000.
As the fourth seed in the SEC Tournament, UK will play in Thursday's first round against Alabama. The Cats fell to 0-7 against ranked opponents, putting them on target for the first season since 1973-74 without a victory over a ranked opponent.
No. 5 Florida improved to 26-5 overall, an SEC-best 13-3 and 18-0 at home this season. The Gators had not been unbeaten at home since 1993-94.
With Perry scoring 16 first-half points, Kentucky stayed even through the first 20 minutes.
The half showed why poor defense had led to losses in three of Florida's last four games. In those games, opponents had made 55.6 percent of their shots (42 percent from three-point range). Kentucky kept up that blistering pace, making 54.8 percent of its shots (17-for-31). The Cats made six of 13 three-point attempts (46.2 percent).
"I don't know if our defense could have been criticized in the first half," Florida Coach Billy Donovan said, "because we turned the ball over so much. If you're going to turn it over, you're better off throwing the ball 10 feet into the stands so you can set your defense."
Kentucky never led by more than six points because Florida dominated the rebounding (18-9) and had its way offensively. The Gators actually outshot UK in the half, making 59.3 percent of their shots. Nine turnovers hurt Florida. Kentucky outscored the Gators 14-2 in points off turnovers.
Florida scored the first four points after halftime -- baskets by Horford and Noah -- and never trailed. The Gators made 16 of 23 shots in the second half, in part because Randolph Morris picked up a bad fourth foul (at least 25 feet from the basket trying to double-team a Florida dribbler) with 8:48 left.
"It was questionable," Morris said of the foul. "It was also my fault for putting myself in a situation where (the referee) could call that."
Morris credited Noah and Horford for "having a lot of energy. You just have to match that. We didn't."
With Morris playing 18 minutes (his third-lowest total of the season), UK had trouble matching Florida around the basket.
"When they saw Randolph get in foul trouble, they saw weakness there," Crawford said, "and they took advantage of it."