This was the Al Horford the Gators (18-2, 4-2 SEC) desperately needed to break out of their two-game funk that was threatening to deflate a team that had started the season at 17-0. The big guy lit the fire that ended the lethargic slide, putting the Gators on his broad shoulders and taking them to an 81-58 win over Vandy (12-5, 3-3 SEC) before a crowd of 12,001 at the O'Connell Center.
"Al played like a warrior," said Joakim Noah, who contributed 10 points in Florida's winning effort. "He played like a leader. Horfy … I'm just so proud of this guy. He did what he had to do. We needed every rebound, every loose ball. I saw him just throwing his body around."
Two sequences in particular highlighted Horford's effort. With a little more than seven minutes remaining in the first half and Florida trailing, 26-17, Horford waged his own private war on the backboard. It started with a missed shot that he rebounded and tried to stick back but he was hammered on the play and there was no foul call. He went to the other side of the rim, got his own miss and went up again. Again there was plenty of contact, no foul call and another missed shot. Not to be denied, Horford once again rebounded his own miss only this time he powered up through all the contact and somehow the ball went in the basket.
Mark it down. There was 7:11 left in the game and this is when someone plugged in the electricity that ignited the Florida Gators. The Gators closed hard in the last minutes of the half, finding their offensive game and some defensive intensity that matched Horford's effort. Florida closed the half with an energetic 18-12 run that closed the Vandy lead to 38-35 at the intermission.
"When a guy plays that hard and with that much energy, it's contagious to the whole team," said Noah. "You bring the energy level to a certain point and it carries to the rest of the team. That's what Al did today with the passion he played with."
The second sequence came at the 14:45 mark in the second half with the Gators leading, 45-44. Adrian Moss missed a jump shot and there was a scramble for the ball. Bodies were flying everywhere and the ball kept slipping away. Horford dived into the pile, wrestled the ball away and called timeout to allow the Gators to keep possession. Once again there was a surge of energy and the Gators turned it on for a 36-14 finish, turning a typically tough SEC game into a blowout victory.
Horford's play was a startling contrast to his six-point, nine-rebound effort earlier in the week in the loss to South Carolina. He was practically a no-show in that 68-62 loss.
"You look at Al Horford Wednesday night (against South Carolina) and you seem him here Saturday and it's two different players," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan.
Horford was embarrassed by his effort at South Carolina. He vowed to make a 180-degree turnaround against Vanderbilt.
"I feel like I wasn't ready to go [against South Carolina]," said Horford. "I made sure today that I was ready to go from the start. Maybe I wasn't focused enough [against South Carolina] … that's not going to happen again. Not ever."
Florida played perhaps its best defense of the season in the second half, holding Vanderbilt to only 20 points and an 0-10 shooting effort from the three-point line. The defense was fueled by a better effort on the offensive end. Florida made the most of its offensive opportunities, scoring from the field and getting to the foul line on a regular basis. That, in turn, let the Gators set up their full court press and Vanderbilt wilted under the pressure and pace of the game.
While Donovan was happy with the way the Gators closed out the first half with energy and improved defense down the stretch, he wanted a better effort coming out of the gate in the second half. Florida came out with new life on the defensive end and that carried over onto the offense.
"I think it was a combination of one, we got up the floor, we were able to score, we shot 62 percent in the second half, we were able to press and we were able to get the game going up and down and that contributed to it," said Donovan. "The other thing that contributed to it is they did miss 10 three-point shots.
"For us we just talked more defensively that we had to be disruptive, we've got to be somewhat chaotic, we have to get good shots on offense, we have to fly around and scramble for loose balls. Our mindset was to try to be disruptive and take them out of what they were doing by scoring, getting the press on and then switching a lot of their screening action."
To get the game going at the pace they wanted, Florida made a conscious effort on offense to drive the ball to the basket. There was method to the madness because it got the Gators a lot of driving layups and it also helped Florida get to the foul line. Outscored from the foul line in the two losses to South Carolina and Tennessee, the Gators went 19-24 from the foul line Saturday while Vandy was only 12-19.
The two beneficiaries of the drive it to the rack mentality were Green and Lee Humphrey. Green got to the foul line for seven of his 12 points (7-8 free throws) while Humphrey created eight of his 14 points off the dribble including three driving layups in the second half, two of which came straight down the lane.
"Lee took a step today in a positive direction," said Donovan. "He found other ways to help our team other than shooting threes. He's starting to understand that I can't get threes off all the time because teams are guarding me. So he started driving and putting the ball on the floor and making plays. It was good to see him do those things."
Horford felt all the big guys were beneficiaries of the way Humphrey aggressively took the ball to the hole.
"He's got moves that we see in practice," said Horford. "I keep telling him all the time 'man you can do this … you've got to attack the rim.' Today they were running him off his shots so that's what he did."
The Gators did it Saturday without a lot of help on the floor from sophomore Corey Brewer, still hobbled by his sprained ankle suffered last week against Tennessee. Brewer played more than 30 minutes against South Carolina on the bad ankle but his game was ineffective. Against Vandy, Brewer came off the bench and played 17 minutes. He scored three points and had a couple of steals, not big numbers, but he still made a significant contribution.
Saturday morning, Brewer went to Donovan's office and told the coach that because his ankle still hasn't healed, he would be better off helping the team off the bench. Brewer told Donovan that he would be better to start freshman Walter Hodge.
"He felt that where he was at physically, it was best for Walter to start," said Donovan. "I think that takes a kid with unbelievable character, a kid that cares about the team and kid that's started every game since he's been here walked into my office and said 'Coach, Walter needs to start. I need to come off the bench. I'll be a better help if I can do that because I will tell you how I'm feeling and how much I can do but I want to win and I don't know if starting me is the best way for us to win.'
"I don't know how many sophomores in college would come in and say that when he breaks a string of a lot of starts."
In his first start as a Gator, Hodge was solid, scoring nine points (3-5 shooting), grabbing three rebounds, dishing out an assist and contributing with a couple of steals on the defensive end. Brewer is 6-9 while Hodge is just 6-0, yet Vanderbilt was unable to take advantage of its superior size by posting the quick freshman up. "The last couple of games he's stepped it up big with Corey going down," said Horford. "That's really important to get help off the bench like that. It's kind of like us last year. He's getting more confidence and he's growing up quickly."
The final stat sheet showed exactly why the Gators won the game. Behind Horford's rebounding, Florida controlled the boards and finished with a 35-26 advantage including a 15-11 advantage in offensive rebounds. The Gators shot 51.8 percent (29-56) while holding Vandy to 44.9 percent. Vandy was 20-32 on two-point shots but just 2-17 from beyond the arc. The Gators only turned the ball over 12 times, just five times in the second half while forcing Vandy into 15 turnovers.
The Gators take to the road again Tuesday night when they travel to Oxford to face Ole Miss.