HOOPS: Donovan gets 200th win at Florida

It wasn't supposed to be like this. Florida's basketball team was supposed to be young, inexperienced and treading water, hoping to find an identity by the time the SEC schedule arrived in January.

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That's what the critics and experts were saying in the preseason but they've been about as accurate as the psychic hotline.

Coach Billy Donovan's Gators do play the game and they play it the right way. They play hard on defense. They attack the glass when the ball goes up. They make the extra pass. They really don't care who leads the scoring as long as the Gators are the leading scorer on the final scoreboard and through seven games, Florida has finished every game as the leading scorer. Unquestionably, this is a team that shows all signs that it will prove the critics wrong for an entire season because the talent is better than everyone expected and the team has its priorities right.

The Gators gave a clinic in tough defense and unselfishness Saturday afternoon at the O'Connell Center, overwhelming Central Florida 80-47 before a crowd of 9,125 for win number 200 in the Donovan era at Florida. It was ten years ago that Donovan got his first win as the Gator coach and ironically, Central Florida was the opponent then as well.

The eleventh ranked and unbeaten Gators travel to Providence Tuesday in a homecoming of sorts for Donovan, who led the Friars to the Final Four as a player in 1987 when Rick Pitino was his coach. The last time Florida won seven in a row to start the season was 1984-85.

Saturday's win over Central Florida was a lesson in defensive intensity as the Gators played trapping, pressing man to man defense the entire game, forcing the Knights into 19 turnovers that were converted into 34 Florida points.

"I was really happy with our defensive discipline, the way we stayed focused every possession down the floor defensively," said Donovan. "From the start to finish this was the bet performance we've had defensively this year."

The defensive intensity really showed at the start of the second half. Florida led comfortably, 36-23, at the half, but the Gators came out of the locker room applying pressure at a much higher level and the Knights wilted.

Corey Brewer, who led Florida with 25 points, became the human highlight reel and the catalyst for a 19-4 run in the first six minutes of the half. In that stretch, the 6-8 sophomore small forward scored nine points that included a nice three, pulled down three rebounds, stole the ball three times and for good measure, chipped in with an assist.

"I felt like it got the team going once I got a steal, threw it to Jo and he got a dunk and everybody got up, then I got another steal and a dunk," said Brewer, whose 25 points were a career high at UF. "From there on we just put it on them."

He had a stretch of three straight baskets after that which were ESPN Play of the Day material. He had a spectacular layup finish on a fast break at the 10:59 mark to push the Gators to a 61-29 advantage then he topped that by running the baseline, taking a pass from Taurean Green under the hoop and dunking over his head on the other side of the rim. The O'Dome crowd was still buzzing over that dunk when Noah got a steal, kicked the ball out to Green and Brewer finished with an acrobatic layup after an alley oop pass from Green that brought the house down.

Brewer's 25 points came on 10-14 shooting from the field, a sensational followup to an 8-9 performance Monday night against Alabama State. He led the team with seven rebounds and five steals.

Al Horford had a career high 17 points on 7-11 shooting from the field. He also had five rebounds, four steals and a blocked shot. Noah had 13 points, five rebounds, five assists, two blocked shots and a steal.

Because Florida's front line played so well, Green and Lee Humphrey didn't have to come up big offensively. Green basically ran the show. He had seven points that included a pair of free throws that stretched his consecutive made free throws to 26 but it was his passing that was the best part of his game. He had a career high nine assists and just one turnover.

Central Florida tried to take Humphrey out of the offensive game plan and for the most part, the Knights succeeded. Humphrey only got four good looks from the field but he buried three of them from behind the arc. For the season, Humphrey is hitting 55 percent from three-ball land (25-45).

The gaudy offensive stats (58 percent from the field on 31-59 shooting and 50 percent from the three-point line on 6-12) all had their origin in the intensity Florida brought to the floor defensively. Florida's game plan was to take the three-point line out of play for UCF. The Knights came into the game averaging eight made threes a game but they only got eight shots off from behind the arc Saturday.

"I thought our kids did a phenomenal job of defending the three-point line," said Donovan. "They were a team that was making about eight a game and they made two and one was late in the second half. We took the three-point line out of the game and I thought that was a big reason for us being able to win by so many points. It all started with our defense and the way they played from start to finish."

When the Gators made the stops on the defensive end, they transitioned quickly to the offensive mode. UCF was unprepared for big men like Noah and Horford to rebound the ball and then start the break on the dribble. Quite often Noah and Horford were so far ahead of the UCF defenders that the Gators had the numbers for easy shots on the offensive end of the floor.

"This team changes ends of the floor as good as any team I've had here," said Donovan. "We're a good running team."

Donovan likes that Horford and Noah are exceptional ball handlers so they can start the break on the dribble, but what makes them so effective is their ability to see open teammates and make good decisions on the move.

"Al Horford and Joakim Noah are such good passers," he said. "Those guys get our back court players shots. That's something we need to continue to emphasize."

It is the unselfishness of this team that greases the many functioning parts of this team and makes it click. Donovan calls this a team that plays the right way and that has its priorities in all the right places. This is not a team that is concerned with who's scoring how many points or who is playing more minutes. It's not about egos it's about playing together as a team and winning.

"Their focus is on defending and rebounding and their focus on offense is total unselfishness," said Donovan, who added that "we don't have guys in the locker room worrying about they didn't get enough shots or enough minutes. They derive pleasure from seeing somebody else do well. They are a consummate team."

It's still early and there is a long grind ahead for the Gators, but this is a team that shows improvement nearly every game. The critics said it was a team that would struggle early and perhaps the entire season but that hasn't been the case.

"It's amazing if you do have talent and mindsets are right how good you can be as a team," said Donovan.

GATOR NOTES: Forward Chris Richard hurt his already sprained ankle again. Donovan said he's not sure if it's just an aggravation of the old injury or if Richard has injured the ankle more severely … Donovan's career record (includes two years at Marshall) is now 235-112. At Florida he is 200-92 … Norm Sloan is Florida's all-time winningest coach with 235 wins. At his present pace, Donovan will surpass Sloan next year in his eleventh season … Green is within seven consecutive free throws of tying the school record of 33 set by Kenyan Weaks … The Gators have now hit 55 three pointers in 128 attempts this year … Florida has 63 steals and 35 blocked shots. Opponents have stolen the ball only 43 times and have blocked just 15 shots.

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