It was the choice of a slow death by free throws or a quicker death by three-pointers. He chose three-pointers and death came quickly as the Gators put on one of the greatest three-point shooting exhibitions Florida Coach Billy Donovan's ever been associated with. Starting at the 11:27 mark in the first half on a three-ball by Matt Walsh and ending at the 12:32 mark in the second half, the Gators didn't miss from beyond the arc. The Gators knocked down nine straight threes and Ole Miss didn't have any answers.
"I don't know if I've ever been part of nine in a row," said Donovan after his Gators hammered Ole Miss 90-53 in a Southeastern Conference game at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center before a crowd of 11,390. "I've been a part of three or four in a row but never nine. I had no idea we made nine in a row."
The spectacular shooting behind the arc was just one more dagger to the heart of an Ole Miss team that struggled in every area against the Gators. Florida shot 64 percent from the field for the game and 64.7 percent on three-ball tries. Florida outrebounded the Rebels 41-25, and as if to add insult to injury, the Gators blocked a season high 10 shots with Al Horford tying the Southeastern Conference's game high for the season with seven rejections.
Roberson led the Gators with 20 points on 8-12 shooting including 4-7 on three-pointers. Walsh had 16 points including 4-5 on threes to go with seven assists. During the run of nine in a row, Walsh and Roberson each hit three three-pointers. Taurean Green (nine points, four assists) hit one of the threes and Lee Humphrey (eight points) hit two. David Lee turned in a 12-point, nine-rebound, two assist and two blocked shot game before leaving in the second half when his mouth was bloodied on a rebound by an inadvertent elbow.
The Gators shared the ball well. Passing was crisp and quick as Florida did a great job of getting the ball inside to Lee and Horford, then back out quickly to the perimeter where the shooters were almost always open. The Gators finished the night with 24 assists on 32 made shots.
"It all starts with Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh," said Donovan. "David Lee is one of the most unselfish players I've ever coached. He made some incredible passes. He passes the ball so well and it makes the game so easy for everyone. All of our guys moved the ball well. When the big three really get the ball moving it really gets contagious for the rest of the team."
On the defensive end, Donovan was very pleased with the way the Gators turned up the intensity. There was only one stretch that he wasn't pleased with the way Florida played defense and that was the final four minutes of the second half when the Gators allowed Ole Miss to cut the UF lead from 19 to 13 points.
"We got the last media time out [of the first half] with about 3:57 to go and I was really disappointed the way we closed the first half out," said Donovan. "We were up nineteen and only went into the locker room up 13."
It was at the half that Horford said Donovan challenged the Gators to regain their intensity on defense and to let the defense set the tone for the rest of the game.
"We wanted to shut them down," said the 6-8 freshman center. "In the first half, in the last four minutes we gave up a lot of easy baskets. We wanted to slow them down and take them out of what they wanted to run, so Coach said okay guys, we have the who 20 minutes to play defense and we have to play intense."
Donovan indeed challenged the team at the half. He wanted the Gators to play with hard at both ends of the floor. He wanted his team to show the kind of killer instinct that at times has been lacking this season.
"We went in there [locker room at halftime] and talked to them about who they wanted to be," he said. "I've got a different mentality than some of our guys do. I'm more interested in our basketball team becoming the best we can become rather than squeaking by with a win. We need to take our team and our energy and everything we do to a different level and I said you guys have to make a decision who you want to be.
"Do you want to be a complacent group or do you want to be an intense group?"
The decision obviously was for intensity.
Florida led 46-33 at the half but the Gators came out breathing fire from the opening whistle of the second half, forcing a bad shot on the opening possession by the Rebels and six seconds later turning that into a transition layup by Roberson. It took Ole Miss more than seven minutes to finally score a second half basket, a layup by Tommie Eddie with 12:56 remaining in the game. By that time the Gators had a healthy 66-36 lead. Florida would reel off another eight points before Ole Miss could score again.
"At one point, ten minutes into the half, they had three points so I think we did a great job of shutting them down," said Walsh.
The Gators got six second half blocked shots, four by Horford. The rejections kept the defense inspired, but also quite often got the Gators running in transition.
"They really hurt us with their shot blocking ability," said Barnes who noted that his team has to play under control and can't afford to get in a running game. "We had some looks that if they don't block them, they don't turn into easy transition baskets the other way."
With the defense setting the stage with intensity, the offense was firing away both inside and outside. The key, said Walsh, was the ability of Florida's big men to recognize the double teams and then get the ball back to the perimeter where it moved quickly to open shooters.
"The way they play defense they double down with the guards," said Walsh. "When they doubled down, our bigs did a great job of finding us."
For Walsh, it was his fourth consecutive game in which his overall play has been outstanding. Over the four-game stretch he has scored 75 points, grabbed 13 reounds, handed out 18 assists and turned the ball over just six times. He's hit 24 of 41 shots including 13-22 on three-pointers. He's hit eight of his last 10 three-pointers.
"Matt's patience has been so much better the last three or four games of letting the game come to him," said Donovan. "There's enough options in our offense that if he'll stop trying to score first option and wait till third fourth fifth or sixth option he'll score better.
"Matt's made our chemistry better because he's been a little more patient within the framework of our offense and he's made the game easier for himself and his teammates."
Having Walsh back to playing the way he was before he injured his ankle in December [missed four games in January because of it] has taken the scoring pressure off Roberson and with two solid weapons on the perimeter, it makes the Gators a far more dangerous offensive team.
"When you got to defend both of us, we're pretty hard to stop," said Roberson, who has scored 77 points over the same four-game stretch. "I think maybe you can stop me or maybe Matt, but I don't think you're gonna stop us both, and if we both are hitting our shots, it makes us a team with a lot of firepower."
When Walsh was injured, Roberson assumed the scoring load for the Gators and he is aware that one player can't carry the team all alone.
"At this level if somebody decides they're going to take somebody out of their game, and they're going to key and make other guys beat you, they can do that," said Walsh. "But we have enough weapons now that they can't key on just one guy. I think I'm taking pressure off Peep (Roberson). I know when Peep's out there it takes pressure off me and Peep probably feels the same way that if they leave me he knows I can make the shot. I think we've been helping each other."
The Gators travel to Baton Rouge Saturday to face a tough LSU team (14-8, 7-4 SEC) that beat Mississippi State in Starkville Wednesday night. The Gators are now 16-6 overall, 8-3 in the SEC.
Photos Copyright Associated Press