HOOPS: Gators dominate Bama - Season's Best Effort

From where Mark Gottfried was sitting on the Alabama bench, Saturday's entire basketball game looked like his team was playing in slow motion while the Florida Gators had everything on fast forward. Nothing at all worked for his eleventh ranked Crimson Tide against a Florida team that played its best and most complete game of the season.

"We never could get into a rhythm offensively," said Gottfried, "and it always seemed that we were a step slow. We were a step slow offensively and a step slow getting to rebounds. We just weren't sharp in any phase of the game."

The reason the Crimson Tide couldn't get it going Saturday was because the Gators finally did all the little things that matter. When the Gators played Mississippi State earlier in the week, Coach Billy Donovan liked the intensity and the effort, but the focus just wasn't there.

Saturday, the focus was there and it showed from the opening minutes until the final whistle as the Gators punched out Bama, 85-56, Florida's largest victory ever (29 point margin) over a ranked opponent, before 11,787 screaming fans at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

"We played very hard and we played very physical [against Mississippi State] but I thought our focus on the details and the small things was not very good," said Donovan, whose Gators improved to 14-5 overall, 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference. Alabama dropped to 17-4 overall, 6-2 in the SEC.

The focus on the details and the small things showed up in every category against Alabama on Saturday. The Gators boxed out better than they had all season and the result was a tremendous, 46-23, rebounding advantage that included a spectacular 19-5 margin in offensive rebounds. In the first half, the Gators had 10 offensive rebounds to zero for Alabama.

The focus on details also showed in how the Gators moved the basketball, first inside and then outside. The spacing was there so when the ball went into the post, if the shots weren't there for Florida's big men, they were able to hit open men on the perimeter. Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh consistently made Alabama pay dearly for doubling down on the big guys, combining to hit seven of their 15 three-point attempts. Roberson and Walsh finished with 18 points each.

When the shots were there on the inside, David Lee and Al Horford were dominating. Lee had 18 points and six rebounds, hitting 7-11 from the field, while Horford turned in his best game ever as a Gator with 14 points, an SEC-best for 2005 18 rebounds, and a pair of blocked shots.

Focus on the details also showed on the defensive end. The Gators held Alabama to 39.6 percent from the field for the game and only 5-17 from the three-point line. Florida was able to totally disrupt Alabama's offensive flow to the point that Kennedy Winston, averaging 19 points per game in Southeastern Conference play, managed just six points and only two of those in the second half.

"We've been a good basketball game on both sides until today," said Gottfried. "In our first six or seven conference games, offensively played well and we were good on defense, just not today. Sometimes you don't know why. If you knew why, you'd do it every night."

Florida broke the game open with a 15-0 run in the first half that began on a three-pointer from the corner by Lee Humphrey with 13:18 remaining in the half to tire the game at 12-12. Florida pressed on Alabama's possession and got point guard Ronald Steele way out of synch and in trouble near midcourt. His high pass was knocked away by Anthony Roberson and flipped ahead to Corey Brewer whose high-flying dunk ignited the crowd as the Gators took the lead for good, 14-12.

David Lee had five of the points on the run, two on a 12-foot jumper and a three-point play the old fashioned way. Roberson did a coast to coast layup and then once again, showing how focus on the little things pays off, Horford found Walsh moving to an open area as the shot clock wound down. Rather than try to go up against Alabama's two big men, Horford found Walsh open on the wing with a perfect pass, chest high. Walsh drained the three-pointer to put Florida out front 24-12, once again sending the decibel level in the O'Connell Center to new highs.

The best Alabama could do is close within nine points at the 5:38 mark in the first half, but the Gators countered that with a 16-3 run to go into the intermission with a 46-23 lead. Walsh put the punctuation mark on the nearly perfect half of basketball with a long three-pointer as the horn sounded, raising the decibel level in the O'Connell Center to deafening levels.

The second half belonged to Horford, whose tough rebounding and interior defense set the tone. He totally dominated the inside with eight points, 12 rebounds and a blocked shot in the second half, much to the amazement of Lee.

"He [Horford] was awesome," said the 6-9 Lee, the Gators only senior. "More than once I was going up to get it [the ball] and I was up in the air, looked and he was already there grabbing the rebound."

Horford played poorly at Mississippi State earlier in the week. He was schooled by MSU's senior 1-2 inside punch of Lawrence Roberts and Marcus Campbell and spend most of the game on the bench in foul trouble.

"The last game he sat a lot with foul trouble and this game he bounced right back to play great," said Lee. "That's the sign of a good ball player."

Donovan says that his 6-8, 245-pound freshman is constantly soaking in knowledge and constantly putting what he's learned into play in the games. The coach thinks his freshman center is only beginning to show what he can do.

"When you tell him something he just totally absorbs," said Donovan. "The best part about Al is whatever you can give him experience wise, talking about the situations and what to expect, he buys in and really, really listens. He's a sponge when it comes to learning."

The game also marked the return of Walsh to the level of play he was exhibiting every game before he went down with the torn ligament ankles that caused him to miss four games. In the four games since his return, Walsh has been struggling, but Saturday, he found himself once again.

"I'm really happy for Matt," said Donovan. "He's worked hard to get back. After the Mississippi State game he was in our basketball facility working on his shooting and on his game until four o'clock in the morning. I think that in life if you work that hard at something that's that important to you it will come around, so it was good to see Matt have the success he had overall."

The shooting was back for Walsh (6-12 from the field including 3-7 from beyond the arc), but his passing was spectacular. He had seven assists and two of the passes were the no-look variety which led to dunks by Lee.

"You had to know his shooting would come around," said Lee. "He's too good to keep missing open shots. What I thought was so great was seven assists and no turnovers."

Donovan agreed with Lee, noting "I've been coaching him [Walsh] for three years now and I don't think he's ever been through a game without committing a turnover. It was good to see him play like that. He took care of the ball, he made good decisions, he took good shots, he made 50 percent from the field and he was 3-7 from the three-point line."

Walsh also contributed to the overall defensive effort with a lockdown performance on Winston and Earnest Shelton, the high scoring Bama guard.

"He really did a nice job on Kennedy Winston and Earnest Shelton," said Donovan. "Probably as well as could possibly do and those guys are very difficult to guard."

Roberson, like Walsh, hit 50 percent from the field (6-12). He was selective with his shots and handed our four assists, but he also put forth the effort defensively, allowing the Gators to play a disruptive game from start to finish.

"This is what we can do," said Roberson. "This is what we should do every time out."

Next up for the Gators is SEC leader Kentucky in Lexington, Tuesday night.

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