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The four-game run in the 2K Sports tournament has Florida off to a most surprising 4-0 start to the season. With a starting lineup of four sophomores and a junior and minus the big three of Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee, the Gators were expected to come to New York and take two losses in what would be called a growing experience. The only problem was, nobody told these young Gators that they weren't supposed to be able to play with the big boys of the ACC and the Big East.
Florida played two games in New York with heart, plenty of desire and more maturity than anyone could have expected. Florida showed it can be both patient and capable of running up and down the floor on offense. Defensively, the Gators showed they can play tough man to man and that they have sufficient inside presence to play with anybody. More than anything else, however, the New York adventure showed that Billy Donovan has a very coachable team that is capable of keeping alive Florida's run of seven straight 20-win, NCAA Tournament seasons.
Syracuse, which destroyed Texas Tech in Thursday night's semifinal, was expected to school the Gators with its trademark 2-3 matchup zone, but it was Florida doling out the lessons Friday night. With tournament Most Valuable Player Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey finding the holes in the zone and the Gators patiently moving the ball to the open man, Florida shot the Orange out of their zone in the first half. Green, who finished with 23 points for the second straight night, and Humphrey, who added 13, combined for eight three-pointers in a race horse first half that saw Syracuse take a 44-43 lead at the break.
After an up and down first half which had both teams pushing the ball at every opportunity, the second half settled into a grind it out half court affair. Syracuse abandoned its zone and played the Gators straight up in the second half, a move which pretty much cut off the three-ball but allowed the middle to open up. Florida simply shifted gears and pounded the ball inside to Joakim Noah and Al Horford.
Noah and Horford each scored four points in an 11-0 Florida run that was punctuated by a long three by Taurean Green at the 16:06 mark to give the Gators a 56-47 lead. The Gators were on the verge of blowing out Syracuse at that point but a sloppy five-minute spell allowed the Orange back in the game.
Just like the first half when the Gators had a chance to crack the game wide open, a rash of turnovers stymied Florida and let Syracuse back in the game. The Gators turned the ball over three straight times, then missed two foul shots followed by another turnover and an offensive foul. That allowed Syracuse outscore Florida 9-0 and tie the game at 56-56 with 10:49 remaining.
Syracuse took the lead at 60-58 and again at 62-60, but that's when Florida regrouped and made its final push of the evening to seal the win. Horford got the Gators started when he hit a wide open 17-footer from the key to tie the game at 62-62 with 6:18 remaining. Green drove the lane and dumped the ball off to Chris Richard for a dunk with 5:41 to go to put Florida in the lead for good at 64-62. A pull-up jumper by Green, a stickback by Richard and a three by Green with the shot clock winding down jumped Florida's lead to 10, 72-62, with 1:53 remaining in the game. From there on, it was just a matter of eating some clock before the Gators had an improbable first tournament championship of the season.
It was the worst scoring game of the season for Corey Brewer, whose five points represented his first game under double figures of the year. Brewer more than compensated for his lack of scoring with nine rebounds, two steals, a blocked shot and four assists.
Noah had seven rebounds, four steals, two blocked shots and two assists to go with his 12 points. Horford delivered 11 points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots. Off the bench, Richard had 10 points and five rebounds. Humphrey went 4-9 from three-point range, giving him 16 threes in four games this season. Humphrey is hitting 64 percent (16-25) from beyond the arc in Florida's first four games.
But the night belonged to Green, who followed up Thursday night's dominating performance with another game to remember. The 6-0 sophomore, whose dad Sidney played in the NBA and formerly coached Florida Atlantic, was a sizzling 6-9 from the three-point line. He had six assists, two rebounds and a steal.
For the game, the Gators were 13-27 from beyond the arc for 48.1 percent. That was the difference in the game as Syracuse hit only eight three-pointers.
The Gators are off until next Friday night when they play host to Florida State at the O'Connell Center.