"One dimensional" is how Billy Donovan describes last year, and he smiles when he talks about the difference one year can make.
"Our record is not that much different than it was last year but I think we're a better team," he said Wednesday night after the Gators had ground out a tough, 69-61, Southeastern Conference victory over Vanderbilt at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center before a crowd of 10,814. "I think we've got so many more ways to win this year."
Last year, if Vanderbilt's matchup zone had given the Gators fits on the offensive end as it did Wednesday night, the Gators would have lost their composure, especially on the defensive end. This year, when the offense isn't clicking the Gators look for ways to start the offense by getting stops on the defensive end.
"In years past I would probably be concerned but this team is so much better defensively and rebounding," said junior Matt Walsh, who contributed 16 points to go with four rebounds and three assists. "It's encouraging and fun. You can't always control making shots, but you can always play tough at the other end."
Vanderbilt's Shan Foster (32) tries to get through Florida's defense of Adrian Moss (4) Matt Walsh (44) and Al Horford (42) during the second half in Gainesville, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005. Florida defeated Vanderbilt 69-61. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
Florida played tough throughout the game defensively Wednesday, but it was one stretch of four and a half minutes that was the highlight of this win which raised the Gators to 17-7 overall, 9-4 in the SEC East. When Vandy took a 49-48 lead with 6:34 remaining in the game, the Gators found a new level of defensive intensity that sparked an 11-0 run to put the game away.
The stretch run began with a David Lee offensive rebound and stickback of a missed three-ball by Anthony Roberson to give the Gators the lead for good.at 50-49. Florida's next score came on a breakaway layup by Matt Walsh, a play that began on the defensive end when the Gators forced a bad three by Vandy's Corey Smith. Al Horford tipped the rebound to himself and then unloaded a long, two-handed outlet to Walsh who was sprinting down the floor. Walsh made a crossover move for the layup that stretched the lead to three points at 52-49.
Roberson, who scored a game-high 23 points, upped the lead to five with a pullup jumper at the 4:10 mark and then the Gators got another critical defensive stop, forcing a Vandy turnover. On the return possession, Roberson missed a three from the top of the key, but Brewer flew in above the rim from the right side and tipped the ball back. "It just laid there and rolled on the rim," said Brewer. "I was looking up and saying drop, drop, drop and it finally did!"
Brewer, the stringbean freshman from Portland, Tennessee with the pipestem legs and tentacles for arms, has made it a habit of coming through with big plays in critical moments all season.
Florida's Anthony Roberson (1) shoots for three points as Vanderbilt's Shan Foster (32) tries to block the shot during the first half in Gainesville, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
"In the second half of games, easily there are always two or three plays that aren't that was a good team stop but wow, look what Corey did kind of plays," said Lee, who has become one of Brewer's most outspoken admirers. "Whether it's a steal, whether it's a blocked shot, a back tip in the press, hounding a guy on the perimeter so he can't get a shot off and there's a shot clock violation … he does all that. He's the best on the team at doing that and he's been filling that role."
Brewer's totals for the night were nine points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal. He's comfortable doing all the little things that make a big difference and it's his timing that makes what he does so spectacular.
"I just always have had a way to make big plays at the right time," said the 6-8 small forward who loves the nickname of Spiderman that his teammates have given him. "It is like when we need something big to happen, everything slows down for me.
"On that tip, I saw the ball go up and I knew it was going to come at me. As soon as he shot it, I just took off full speed and I timed it just right so I could tip it back up and in. It just laid there on the back of the rim for a long time before it finally went in."
Florida's next score was the dagger in the heart for Vandy. The Commodores played exceptional defense for 33 seconds on the shot clock, but it was what happened in those final two seconds that did Vandy in. Vandy had the wings completely shut off and while David Lee was working hard to get open in the middle, Roberson couldn't get a clean look at him.
Roberson tried a pump fake to get Mario Moore in the air, but Moore didn't bite completely. He did, however, move just enough that Roberson got an opening so he went straight up and launched a three-ball that found the bottom of the net to make it a 59-49 game with 2:29 remaining in the game.
From there it became a free throw shooting contest. Vandy tried to put the Gators on the line to extend the game, but Florida maintained its edge by hitting 10-12 from the foul line in the final minute of the game.
Vandy caused plenty of problems for the Gators offensively by running a matchup zone. When the two teams met earlier in the season in January, Vandy tried to play Florida straight up man-to-man but that didn't work as the Gators took an 82-65 win in Nashville. Donovan knew that the strategy would change for this matchup.
"You knew they were going to make some adjustments and changes and as a coaching staff you have to figure out what it's going to be," said Donovan. "We really felt that we were going to see a lot of zone today. We didn't know if it was going to be a 2-3 or some kind of matchup."
Vanderbilt's Mario Moore (1) goes under the basket with Florida's Al Horford (42) trying to block his shot in the second half in Gainesville, Fla., Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005. Florida defeated Vanderbilt 69-61. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)
It was the type of matchup that the Commodores ran that caused all the problems. Vandy was able to disrupt the screens the Gators use to get open looks from the perimeter while sealing off the middle so David Lee and Al Horford rarely got good looks close to the hoop.
"They threw something at us that we hadn't seen," said Lee. "They hadn't run that one possession this year. It took us awhile to adjust to it and once we did, we got better shots."
Florida led by as many as seven points in the first half as Roberson scored Florida's first 11 points. Vandy withstood the early run and kept coming back, tying the game at 29-29 with 53.9 seconds remaining in the half. The Gators were able to close out the half on a positive note, though, as Walsh fired in a 25-foot three-pointer with 25.3 seconds remaining to give Florida it's halftime lead of 32-29. The Gators came through with a defensive stop at the end of the half to take some momentum into the intermission.
"We knew we had to come out the second half a lot more intense on defense," said Brewer. "The offense wasn't going good, but we knew we could change things with our defense and we did."
Donovan has seen his team improve its defense in the past year from the bottom fourth of the SEC to the point that the Gators rank mostly fourth through sixth in most areas.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we're the best defensive team in the SEC because we're not," said Donovan, "We are very gifted offensively but we've made that jump from being like in every category from being 9-12 to where we're now 4-6 in most areas and the one thing we've gotten so much better is rebounding. We're among the upper echelon right now."
With the win the Gators moved another step closer to where they will need to be to extend their string of consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament to seven straight. Florida is at South Carolina Sunday and at Georgia next week before ending the season at the O'Connell Center against Kentucky.
"It's time for us to be on edge," said Roberson. "There is no time to breathe easy for us right now. We have to play big. We have to go in there and get a big one on the road up at South Carolina. We have to get back on edge and focus more starting tomorrow. We have to focus more, suck it up and give it all we've got."