MEN'S HOOPS: Gators don't fold down the stretch

A year ago, the intensity of South Carolina's comeback would have been too much to handle. A year ago, the Florida Gators would have caved in to the comeback pressure and somehow, they would have found a way to lose an un-losable game.

When South Carolina made its big second half comeback Saturday, the Gators had a chance to do what they've done all too well in the past, but instead of falling apart when the game got tight, Coach Billy Donovan's team dug in their heels and played some tough defense. They made five stops in South Carolina's final seven possessions Saturday and that was the difference as Florida pulled out an 80-72 Southeastern Conference win at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center before a crowd of 11,753.

The win was the fifth in six SEC games for Florida (13-4 overall) and it gave the Gators the momentum of a two-game winning streak going into a three-game stretch (Mississippi State, Alabama, Kentucky) of ranked teams with the MSU and Kentucky games on the road.

Florida led 43-26 at the half Saturday, but South Carolina got on a roll after intermission behind the hot shooting of freshman Dwayne Day who scored 14 consecutive points for the Gamecocks, hitting four straight deep three-pointers. His shooting turned a blowout into a nail-biter. When Day entered the game, Florida led 56-39. A little over three minutes later, South Carolina was down 60-53 and very much in the game.

From that point on, it was one tough possession after another. South Carolina was able to close within five points at 65-60 at the 7:13 mark and then to within four, 76-72, on a layup by Tre Kelly then a steal and dunk by Carlos Powell with 20 seconds left.

"A year ago and we probably don't win," said senior power forward David Lee, who led Florida with 18 points and 10 rebounds. "You have to have guys step up. We didn't have guys step up last year and the year before."

In games against Kentucky and LSU last year, the Gators gave away leads late in the game when they couldn't get critical defensive stops or rebounds in the final minutes. Saturday, South Carolina was trying to close the gap in the final minutes but the Gators played tough defense, stopping the Gamecocks cold on five of their last seven possessions.

"The last seven possessions they were 2-7 which was huge," said Donovan. "We got stops and we got to the free thrown line."

In the final 1:26 of the game, the Gators forced Day to miss a three, got a charging found on Tarence Kinsey (drawn by Lee) with 1:09, forced a turnover by Kinsey, forced Kelly to turn it over with 15 seconds to go and got a missed layup by Powell with five seconds remaining.

Florida, meanwhile, hit five of its last six free throws to seal the win. Matt Walsh hit three of his four attempts and Anthony Roberson hit both of his.

Walsh and Roberson didn't have great shooting or scoring nights. Roberson's 15 points came on 4-12 shooting while Walsh had eight points on 2-8 shooting. A year ago and that would have spelled disaster.

"It was good to see us come out with an SEC win when you have Anthony Roberson and Walsh go 6-19 combined," said Donovan. "That was disaster for us last year. That was no chance to win. Last year we needed David Lee, Roberson and Walsh to play well. We had to have them combine for 50-60 points for us to win. If they had shot like they did tonight, last year there would have been no chance for us to win."

The difference this year came from a balanced offensive effort that saw freshman Corey Brewer (12 points) join Lee and Roberson in double figures and several others make strong contributions.

Sophomore Chris Richard, playing what Donovan said was probably his best game since he's been at Florida, contributed nine points off the bench. Richard had five points in the final two minutes of the first half with two power moves inside. Freshman center Al Horford came in with eight points, nine rebounds and a blocked shot. Freshman Joakim Noah had five points, four rebounds and four blocked shots. Sophomore Lee Humphrey, who played sick, chipped in with five points.

"Lee Humphrey lost nine pounds this morning with the flu or food poisoning," said Donovan. "I would have liked to have been able to play Lee a little more, but he took three IV bags of fluids. He had a great three at the end of the first half. I appreciate Lee playing under the circumstances."

Brewer contributed defense to go with his 12 points. He made a critical steal with 5:44 remaining, swiping the ball from Kinsey at midcourt, then driving in for the layup while picking up a foul from Kinsey. He had a couple of critical rebounds in the final minutes, but what he did best was shut down Day. After the South Carolina freshman rattled off 14 points in a row, Brewer got the assignment of shutting him down.

"I just got in his face," said Brewer, who has become Florida's best and most consistent defensive presence. "He didn't get any more off me the rest of the way."

It was Noah's first half energy that lit the fire under the Gators. He got a blocked shot just seconds after entering the game, got an offensive rebound to keep a possession alive and then converted a tip-in with 14:05. All that was in a 43 second sequence. That got the Gators going on a 15-5 run that helped build the big first half lead.

"He [Noah] gave us energy," said Donovan. "I felt we didn't have a lot of energy until he came into the game."

Horford provided a relentless presence on the boards. In one 10 second interval, Horford got three offensive rebounds but on each of the boards, he got stuffed by the Gamecocks' Renaldo Balkman. Somehow the ball popped out to the foul line where Walsh puched it with his fist back at Lee who delivered a dunk to finish off the bizarre sequence.

"Al Horford went up three times and they blocked Al's shot three times in a row," said Donovan. "Matt made an unbelievable desperation swipe at the ball to get it to David. It was an incredible play."

Incredible plays when the game was on the line were the norm for the Gators Saturday. It's the kind of effort that Donovan says has to be repeated game in and game out for Florida to stay in the thick of the Southeastern Conference race.

"There have been some games last year like LSU and Kentucky when we couldn't get enough stops," said Donovan. We found a way to get some stops. We found a way to win the game."

Lee added, "We will have days that we're shooting well and days that we're not, but if we can consistently play defense, we have a chance to be in every game down the stretch.

"You can't be a top team in your conference if you're built around one guy. You have to have several guys step it up scoring, rebounding, playing defense. We didn't do that last year or the year before. You have to continue to make plays in the last part of the games. You have to make those plays to win."

Florida got the win Saturday. Now they find out about life on the road once again, in Starkville Tuesday night against a ranked Mississippi State team that is coming off a loss to LSU. The Gators will have to bring their intensity, defense and rebounding to hang with the Bulldogs, who have one of the most intimidating and dominating front lines in the SEC.

The Gators return home next Saturday to face Alabama.

Photo Copyrighted by Associated Press.

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