HOOPS: Lee explodes down stretch to lead UF

In Florida's two most recent road games, when the young players who work with him in the post were no-shows, the Gators inside game disappeared and with that lack of support, David Lee's presence became insignificant. <p> All that changed in Knoxville Saturday.

David Lee took that next step and elevated his game to a place it hasn't been all season long and it couldn't have come at a better time. In the second half of Florida's road game with Tennessee, Lee completely took over the game with an inspired performance that led the Gators to an 84-73 victory, their seventh in 10 Southeastern Conference games, solidifying Florida's hold on second place in the Eastern Division.

The final numbers for Lee read 21 points on 6-11 shooting from the field, a perfect 9-9 from the foul line and 12 rebounds. The stat that should open your eyes is the 9-9 from the foul line because Lee went to the hoop aggressively continually in the second half with the kind of in your face offense that got Tennessee's entire front line in foul trouble.

David Lee drives against Major Wingate.(AP Photo/Wade Payne)

Lee was having a pretty good game in the midst of a nip and tuck battle when he got called for his third foul with 10:46 remaining. Brandon Crump, Tennessee's 6-10, 255-pound center caught Lee out of position and took the ball to the rack. Lee whacked Crump across the arms but Crump still scored and had a chance at a three-point play that could have given the Vols the lead but he blew the free throw, which Lee rebounded. From that moment on, Lee took over the game. In the final 10:30 of the game, Lee scored 11 points and pulled down five rebounds.

He gave Florida the lead at 60-57 just 16 seconds later when he rebounded his own missed shot and took it straight back up in Crump's face, drawing the foul and getting the basket. Lee hit the free throw to extend it to a three-point for Florida. Tennessee would tie the game on a three-point jumper by CJ Watson at the 9:46 mark, but from that was as good as it would get for the Vols.

Lee got the fourth foul on Major Wingate, Tennessee's other 6-10 post player, at the 6:20 mark. He hit both the free throws to make it a 68-65 Florida margin. At 4:38, with the Gators leading 71-69, Anthony Roberson's driving shot at the basket caromed off the rim but Lee flew through the air unimpeded and dunked back the follow.

At the 3:58 mark, Lee went to the basket again and drew Andre Patterson's third foul. Once again he hit the free throws which extended the Gators lead to 75-69. He got Crump's fourth foul at the 3:18 mark on another aggressive move to the hoop and again, he knocked down the free throws.

With 1:42 remaining in the game, the Gators began a three-shot possession that lasted 21 seconds, kept alive by offensive rebounds by Corey Brewer (nine points and 10 rebounds for the night) and Lee. Matt Walsh (23 points) hit a pair of free throws to conclude the possession with a 10-point Florida lead, 79-69.

From there it was a parade to the free throw line as Florida sealed the win.

This was the kind of gritty performance from Lee that the Gators needed. He is Florida's one senior and he's stepped up his game in the SEC portion of the schedule, but on this night, he was needed even more. This time he had to compensate for the fact that the two freshmen big guys, Al Horford and Joakim Noah, combined for three points and nine rebounds. Sophomore Chris Richard didn't score and didn't get a rebound in his seven minutes on the floor, and junior Adrian Moss, playing for the first time since the Christmas break, got two points in three minutes.

Matt Walsh drives against Vol Scooter McFadgon (AP Photo/Wade Payne)

In other games, when he wasn't getting support from his fellow big men, Lee's contributions were kept to a minimum, but on this night, he was THE man and he was unstoppable. Almost every time he got the ball and took it to the hoop aggressively, he either scored or drew a foul.

Most importantly, David Lee wanted the ball when the game was on the line, and when he had it in his hands, good things happened.

Brewer, a freshman from Portland, Tennessee, and Lee Humphrey, a sophomore guard from nearby Maryville, both had outstanding games. Brewer's 10 rebounds were a season high but what was most impressive for him was his shut down defense. He alternated between Scooter McFadgon and Chris Lofton. In the first meeting with Florida back on January 19, McFadgon scored 23 points. This game he got 10 with Brewer and Walsh alternating on him defensively. In the first Florida game, Lofton torched the Gators for 22 points including a 6-10 effort from beyond the arc. This game, he scored eight points and he only got four three-point attempts with Brewer and Humphrey applying the defensive pressure. Humphrey would also score eight points including Florida's final five of the first half which gave the Gators a 41-35 lead at the break.

Walsh only played 13 minutes in the loss to Tennessee back in January. It was his first game back from an ankle injury that cost him four games. Saturday he was back in form with a 23-point effort that tied his season high for points. Walsh hit 4-5 from behind the three-point line and he was 7-12 overall.

In the first Tennessee game, the Vols forced Roberson into his worst game of the year. Although he scored 27 points in that game, he had to launch 27 shots to get the points, and by the time that game was in overtime, he was out of gas. On this night, Roberson played within himself. His 16 points came on just 11 shots.

Also, from a standpoint of protecting the ball, the Gators did a much better job. Florida turned the ball over only 10 times Saturday. In the first Tennessee game, Lee alone had seven turnovers. Lee had no turnovers Saturday.

Florida, which leads the SEC in rebounding margin, outrebounded Tennessee, 36-27, with a 13-8 margin in the final 10 minutes of the game. Florida shot 27-55 from the field and went 23-32 from the foul line.

While Tennessee does indeed have a sub-.500 record, the victory was significant for the Gators because they bounced back from a conference loss with a victory. With Ole Miss coming in to the O'Connell Center on Wednesday, the Gators have a chance to improve their record to 16-6 overall and 8-3 in the SEC. The eight SEC wins would be significant because Florida would be two wins away from that margin number of 10 that almost certainly secures an NCAA Tournament bid in March.

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