It's the kind of atmosphere that Kentucky expects. When you've won as much as the Wildcats have over the years, every road game is another close encounter with a frenzied crowd in a jam-packed arena and decibel levels of sonic proportions. The Wildcats are used to it because they have all the tradition and more wins than any school in the history of the college game. Because of the tradition and the fact the Wildcats came into the game on a five-game winning streak, many of the nation's experts thought the Gators would wilt under the pressure, especially since Florida was playing short handed due to injuries.
Florida wasn't intimidated by the Kentucky tradition or hampered by the injuries. The Gators (20-2, 6-2 SEC) may have a long way to go to match the Kentucky hype and mystique but seventh-ranked Florida played Saturday night like a team that's very comfortable in this new, rarified air near the top. Florida's 95-80 blowout win over the Wildcats, played before an O'Connell Center record crowd of 12,609, wasn't a quantum leap, just another in a long line of steps in the right direction for the Florida program since Donovan took over 10 years ago.
"They [Kentucky] have all the tradition," said Donovan, who now has won 20 games for eight straight years, the third best string of 20-win seasons in the history of the Southeastern Conference. "We're striving to get to that point and I think you always have to start somewhere. I feel like we can build something. We've got good kids in the program. We're aspiring to be what Kentucky is in college basketball."
Before Billy Donovan arrived on the Florida basketball scene, the Gators had won 20 games and appeared in the NCAA Tournament just five times in school history. The Gators will make it eight straight years in the NCAA Tournament this year and the way they played Saturday night, you can almost pencil them in for a high seeding.
Florida didn't just beat Kentucky Saturday night. The Gators took the Wildcats to school, dismantling them with surgical precision without resorting to any gimmicks or fancy plays. This win was accomplished with hard nosed man-to-man defense and a simple pick and roll play that the Wildcats still can't figure out how to defend.
Offensively, the game plan was to use Florida's big guys to set a high screen for point guard Taurean Green to get him free in the lane where he could force the issue with the Kentucky defense. If Kentucky's big guys didn't challenge him, he would simply take the ball all the way to the rack. If they tried to help their guards, he simply dished the ball off to Joakim Noah, Al Horford or Chris Richard for either a dunk or an easy layup.
That was the strategy and it worked to near perfection. Green finished the night with a career-high 29 points and nine assists while the threesome of Noah, Horford and Richard went 18-21 from the field.
"You get too close to him and he's a dart," said Donovan. "He just goes by you and all of a sudden he's good enough going to the basket to finish. Do you step up and try to help on him or do you step up and let him kick it off and drop it down to Joakim Noah and the other guys? His speed and ability to score and shoot the basketball enabled him to do what he did today."
It was the threat of the jump shot that opened up the game for Green. He nailed a three-pointer early in the first half on Florida's fourth possession and he hit another one in the second half that sparked a 13-0 run that gave the Gators control of the game. Kentucky had to try to play him tight to defend the jumper but when the Wildcats tried to get in his face, he ran them off one jarring pick after another which gave him room to maneuver in the lane.
"When Taurean drives to the basket, their bigs have to either help or he's going to get a layup," said Noah, who had a career-high 26 points, eight rebounds, three blocked shots, two assists and a steal. "When he drives to the basket and doesn't settle for his jump shot all the time, it just opens up so much."
Florida spent most of the first half playing catch-up to the Wildcats. Nine Florida turnovers gave Kentucky 13 points and the Wildcats got eight second chance points to zero for the Gators, who had to play much of the half with Horford on the bench with two fouls. Kentucky held a 41-39 lead at the half.
The Wildcats scored the first four points of the second half but that's when Donovan's defensive adjustments kicked in. The strategy in the second half was to limit the number of touches in the low block area for Kentucky's 6-10 center Randolph Morris, who had 10 points and five assists at the half. In the second half, the Gators got backside help with the guards sneaking in to slap at the ball whenever Morris tried to pivot away from the Gator big men. Florida got a couple of steals that triggered fast breaks but most of the time, the maneuver was simply disruptive.
With Kentucky leading 45-39, the Gators began to swarm defensively and that got the offense into a running mode. Florida scored 13 straight points during an 18-1 run that blew the game wide open. Green had a pair of threes and a layup along with three assists including a spectacular in-bounds alley-oop lob to Noah who soared high above the rim and dunked it back through, sending the crowd into an ear-shattering frenzy.
Donovan challenged his team at the half to step it up defensively and let the defense trigger the offense. After Kentucky got those two quick baskets to start the second half, the Gators came on strong on the defensive end.
"We were mad at halftime," said Brewer. "We were getting outrebounded and we weren't stopping anyone. Coach said we were playing like sissies so we went out there and we played aggressive. We were playing Florida defense. We got things going and when we get things going, it's hard to stop us."
Once the Gators had command of the game, they just ran the high pick and roll nearly every time down the floor. Green either got a layup, got fouled or dished off for an easy basket. The Gators went to the foul line 24 times in the final 11:30 of the game, converting 19 times. For the game, Florida was 30-37 from the line with Green leading the way at 10-12 and Brewer knocking down 9-10.
Brewer scored 16 points, his best game since spraining his ankle a couple of weeks ago against Tennessee.
"I'm about 90-95 percent now," said the 6-9 sophomore, who had four rebounds, four assists and a couple of steals. "I think I'll be 100 percent in the next couple of games."
Humphrey, who sat out Tuesday night's win over Ole Miss because of a dislocated shoulder suffered last Sunday when a car hit his bicycle, played 11 minutes. He only attempted one shot (missed) but contributed a couple of assists and a steal while giving Green and freshman Walter Hodge some rest time on the bench.
"We haven't played with a full complement of players since the Georgia game in the SEC," said Donovan. "Al Horford had strep throat, (David) Huertas had strep throat, Corey sprained his ankle against Tennessee and Humphrey dislocates his shoulder. If we can get Humphrey back with the way he shoots the basketball, I think we can be pretty good."
The Gators were better than pretty good Saturday night. They didn't play like the team that's still elbowing its way through the crowd when it comes to basketball tradition. They played in the limelight like they belonged there. They played like a team that's unafraid and very, very capable.
For Green, it was just taking care of business.
"We came in with the right mindset and the right focus and we just played our ball game," said Green. "We followed the scouting report good. We executed what we worked on in practice."
Florida shot 57.7 percent from the field (30-52) for the game while limiting Kentucky to 40.3 percent (27-67). Kentucky hit only 12-37 from the field in the second half and the Wildcats were only 10-28 from the three-point line.