ATLANTA – Even with 21 victories on the season and five straight wins, the University of Arkansas found itself staring straight at the defending national champions on Sunday as it tried to win its second ever SEC Tournament title and thus grab the league's coveted automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
In the end – as they have been for most teams the past two seasons – the Gators were just far too much to handle.
Tournament MVP Al Horford had 18 points and 12 rebounds and all-tournament selection Joakim Noah 17 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 blocks and 4 assists as Florida routed Arkansas 77-56 before 15,428 fans at the Georgia Dome.
It kept the Razorbacks from becoming the third team ever to win four games in four days in the SEC Tournament.
"Well, we faced a well oiled machine," Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. " I'll be very surprised if they don't win it all. It would take an off night for them to get upset. Every time you have a breakdown or you make a mistake, they really capitalize on you very well."
The loss – which came with UA junior forward Charles Thomas playing just 82 seconds due to a knee injury - may have cost Arkansas (21-13) a berth in the Big Dance despite their spirited run at the end of the season.
The Razorbacks will actually be on a flight to Fayetteville when the brackets are announced while the Gators (29-5) are destined for a No. 1 seed and have no worries after a third straight SEC Tournament title.
"I'm really, really proud of these kids, and what they've been able to do, not only this year, but the last three years here," Florida head coach BNilly Donovan said. "This was a game where I think probably fatigue played a factor for both teams, but our guys found a way to manufacture points, and play together and defensively were able to get some stops."
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, whose bracket had Arkansas as the fifth team out on Sunday morning, actually had them as the last team in in the 65-team field.
"Obviously, we'll be in the air, and thinking, and scratching our heads, praying and hoping, the whole thing," Heath said. You know, there is nothing guaranteed in life. We feel we have exceptionally strong arguments to be an at large selection.
"Our league is, I think, the best in the country, but worst case scenario, it's second," Heath added. "And to penalize ourselves because we beat up on each other, because we have quality opponents from top to bottom, I just don't think would be right."
Heath plans to break FAA guidelines by having his cell phone on during the flight.
" I'm going to have my cell phone, they're going to be mad at me, but my cell phone's going to be trying to get some information while we're in the air," the fifth-year Arkansas coach said.
Taurean Green added 10 for Florida, who continued to rev up for a repeat run at the title and kept its starters in the game until 1:05 remained in the game and the Gators were up 75-55.
Michael Washington came off bench with career-highs of 17 points and 7 rebounds to lead the Razorbacks while all-tournament Sonny Weems added 15 points.
No other UA player scored more than six points.
Patrick Beverley, Arkansas' leading scorer and like Washington a true freshman, suffered through the worst game of his Razorback career with just 5 points – his lone field goal coming late in the game.
SEC Freshman of the Year Beverley was 2-of-11 from the field on the night – 0-of-6 from 3-point range as his team went 3-of-24 from beyond the arc.
"That was not an SEC Freshman of the Year effort," Beverley said. "It just wasn't happening for me or the team today. It is very disappointing."
Obviously the woeful 3-point shooting and 35.9 percent overall mark from the field contributed heavily to the loss.
" I thought we could have shot the ball better," Heath said. "We missed some shots that we've been making at a much higher percentage. That would have allowed us to at least keep us in a little more range."
Arkansas trailed just 30-27 when Weems netted two free throws with 3:48 left in the first half.
But Florida improved that to 36-28 at half and then stormed away and never led by less than 10 points after the opening minutes of the second half.
The lead grew to 71-45 when on Noah's slam with 5:41 left in the game.
That brought a resounding thud to a run that had included regular season wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt and then tournament wins over South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.
"I told our guys to hold their heads up high," Heath said. They accomplished a lot. To play in the SEC Tournament championship game is huge. Obviously, we wanted to win. We were disappointed we didn't get the win. We weren't here just to show up. We wanted to do everything we could to win this game, and we just weren't able to do it.
"But I'm proud of our guys," Heath said. "I think over the last three weeks, we've just grown up tremendously. We're playing some of our best basketball. Tonight I don't know if we did or didn't, Florida has something to do with that, I'm sure."
The Arkansas bench sits dejected in the final minute of the Razorbacks' 77-56 loss to Florida in the SEC Championship game on Sunday.
Florida 77, Arkansas 56
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