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OH NOAH, NOT AGAIN

Date story published: Monday, March 6, 2006

Nearly three minutes after the referees called power forward Al Horford for hooking his way past Randolph Morris, Florida Coach Billy Donovan's irritation persisted. So when Kentucky called timeout with 9:35 left in yesterday's game, Donovan chewed again on referee Mike Stuart's ear.

"Settle down," Stuart told Donovan. "You guys are up by 13."

Though Donovan wanted the referees to call the play, not the score, and fretted about Kentucky's penchant for comebacks this season, Stuart was right. "Don't worry, be happy" should have been Florida's motto in a 79-64 crunching of Kentucky on Senior Day.

In more ways than one, this was a "big" victory for Florida. The Gators secured a first-round bye in this week's Southeastern Conference Tournament and inflicted UK's most-lopsided Senior Day defeat since 1919 because of its big men, or "bigs" in basketball parlance.

Center Joakim Noah ignored the game-long booing each time he touched the ball by scoring 15 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and blocking four shots. Horford added 13 points and nine rebounds.

Maybe most telling, the pair combined for seven assists. The chief recipient was Lee Humphrey, who scored a team-high 17 points (the second most he's scored against a SEC team this season).

The result was a whipsaw that cut up Kentucky's resurgent defense.

"The first thing you've got to do is keep the ball out of the post," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "We did a poor job. Then when they did get it in the post, they are good passers out of the post as well. They found the people open and those people they found open delivered."

Kentucky, which sustained its most lopsided home loss since 1992 (105-88 to Arkansas), fell to 19-11 overall and 9-7 in the SEC. The Cats will play Ole Miss on Thursday afternoon in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

In several games this season, Kentucky compensated for its lack of imposing size by going small. The Cats tried a four-guard lineup against Florida. But the Gators' "bigs" defended against smaller players and passed effectively out of the double teams.

"One thing about our 'bigs,' they're pretty good handlers and passers ..." Donovan said. "I thought our advantage was with our size. Our 'bigs' are pretty intelligent. They're pretty good on their feet. We thought we could stay with the big lineup against their guards."

Florida, 24-6 overall and 10-6 in the SEC, jumped on UK's Lilliputian lineup to start the game. The Cats started four seniors (all 6-foot-2 or shorter) and fell behind 5-0 in the first 47 seconds.

Morris came in at the 18:40 mark. Less than five minutes later, he picked up his second foul going over Chris Richard's back for an offensive rebound and went to the bench.

Florida, which trailed only once (31-29), led 34-33 at halftime. As in Gainesville in February, the Gators pulled away in the second half.

An 11-2 run to start the second half gave Florida its first double-digit lead, 45-35. Noah's tip-in completed the run and began a stretch where the Gators got four straight baskets on put-backs.

Florida outrebounded UK 39-27, which matched the Cats' biggest backboard deficit of the SEC season.

Kentucky, which had rallied from double-digit deficits four times this season, closed within nine, 51-42, with 13 minutes left. But the chance to get closer faded away when Rajon Rondo missed two free throws. Then Humphrey sandwiched three-pointers around a Morris free throw.

That pushed the Florida lead to 57-43.

It was about that time that Stuart told Donovan to settle down.

"Kentucky has made some great runs," Donovan said. "It's not inconceivable that it gets down to 12 quickly and now there's three and a half minutes to go. Anything can happen."

Kentucky got no closer than 11 thereafter and fell behind by as much as 21 down the stretch.

Corey Brewer had a chance to punctuate Florida's first sweep of the regular-season series with Kentucky since 1988. But he passed up a wide-open dunk to dribble away from the basket to run more time off the clock.

"We didn't need an exclamation point," Horford said. "We'd already done it."

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