The seventh-ranked Gators, who visit Nashville to play Vanderbilt Wednesday night, improved their record to 21-3 overall, 7-3 in the SEC Eastern Division, still two games behind division-leading Tennessee, an 83-78 winner in Athens against Georgia. LSU (16-7, 8-2) had its lead in the SEC West cut to one game as Alabama stopped Ole Miss, 64-50.
Take away the shooting miseries of Green and Brewer and Florida shot 60 percent from the field which was enough to power the Gators offensively. The Florida playbook for this game had the ball going down low on nearly every possession against the top rebounding and shot blocking team in the SEC. Noah used his superior quickness to get inside for 16 points and Horford powered his way up for another 16. Off the bench Richard contributed six tough inside points and there was help on the perimeter from Lee Humphrey whose 13 points included 3-4 from the three-point line and Walter Hodge, who got in the crease of the LSU defense for three layups and seven points.
On the defensive end, Coach Billy Donovan's plan was to take LSU point guard Darrel Mitchell completely out of his game by whatever means necessary. Taking out the point guard is what Al McGuire used to call cutting the head off the snake. For all the hype of LSU's fabled front line led by 6-9, 310-pound Glen Davis, the player who concerned Donovan most was Mitchell, a 5-11 jet-powered waterbug who has made a case for SEC Player of the Year by dissecting one team after another off the dribble.
"Taurean Green goes 1-9, Corey Brewer goes 1-9 … we did a pretty good job there," said LSU Coach John Brady. "Humphrey got a couple of shots but he's going to get them against most everyone. It just got down to what happened within six feet, eight feet of the goal and that's where they were better than us today."
While LSU's defense on Green and Brewer was an impediment to the Gators, Florida's defensive concoction which had Darrel Mitchell wondering what was coming at him next was critical to Florida's success. Mitchell finished the game with 11 points the hard way. He was forced into a 5-16 shooting day and he was 0-3 from the three-point line.
"We're not a three-point shooting team," said Brady. "We've got one guy --- Darrell Mitchell --- who can step up there and whack 'em. Billy (Donovan) was committed today that every time Darrell got a ball screen they were double teaming and they stayed with the double team and made him give it up. That's good coaching."
Donovan wasn't about to let Mitchell get into a good flow because as Darrel Mitchell goes, so goes LSU.
"He's the whole key to their team," said Donovan. "He's the one guy that when he gets his 18-19 points a game everything else falls into place. We just felt like we had to get the ball out of his hands and not allow him to run a play and have to be able to make plays outside of the framework of their offense."
To disrupt Mitchell and the LSU offense, Donovan devised a constantly changing scheme that rarely gave the same look two straight times down the floor. Florida used a zone defense extensively in the final eight minutes of the first half and the Gators started the second half with a zone, but most of the time it was man-to-man defense with lots of trapping and plenty of help.
"When you have a senior point guard like Mitchell the worst thing you can do is give him the same thing for extended minutes and long periods of time," said Donovan. "He's too good at picking you apart. You just can't stay zone for say 5-8 minutes straight and you can't stay man for a long period of time either.
"We were trying to mix things up. He would cross half court and he's looking to see if the trap is coming and one of our bigs runs at him and makes him pass. Other times we're pressing and we fall back into a zone and other times were're trapping at half court, trying to keep them somewhat off balance. You can't give him a steady dose of the same thing. He's too good at picking you apart if you do that."
Florida had problems getting into offensive rhythms of its own in the first half. With Brewer and Noah on the bench for more than 12 first half minutes because of early foul trouble and Green a no-show from the outside (0-3 including 0-2 from the three-point line), Florida struggled. Humphrey bailed the Gators out with a pair of three-pointers and an alley-oop layup on a pass from Green, and Horford hit five of his eight shots from the field. Humphrey's three from the corner with 38 seconds left tied the game at the half at 37-37.
The Gators bolted to a 45-39 lead at the outset of the second half but a 12-0 LSU run finished off by a three and a layup off a steal by Mitchell seemed to put the Tigers in control at 51-45. That's when Florida got turned around from a most unexpected source. Hodge found a crease in the LSU defense and took the ball straight to the rack for a layup among the Tigers tall trees at the 11:50 mark. During a wild scramble for the ball at the LSU end of the floor, Hodge came away with a steal and a length of the floor layup that closed the LSU margin to two.
With LSU leading 54-53, Green found the range for the only time in the ball game, nailing a three from the corner to put Florida ahead for good. Humphrey bombed in a three on Florida's next possession and Green delivered the perfect pass down low to Richard for an easy layup to stretch the Gators to a 61-54 lead. Brewer hit a couple of free throws 11 seconds later to cap off an 18-3 surge by Florida that turned the game completely around.
Florida was aided down the stretch by some key defensive plays on the inside. Noah got a brilliant block of a Mitchell layup with 1:29 to go and on LSU's next possession, Horford rejected Darnell Lazare.
The defensive work was a startling contrast to Florida's effort against South Carolina. The Gators gave up 10 three-pointers in the Wednesday night loss to the Gamecocks. Saturday, Florida held LSU to 2-11. Whereas South Carolina shot 53 percent Wednesday night, LSU was held to 40.8 percent by Florida.
"South Carolina really burned us from the three-point line," said Humphrey. "We went into practice the next day and coach really stressed the three-point line and what a game changer it can be."
Noah attributed the defensive turnaround to a higher level of energy and intensity by the Gators.
"We have to stay with that level of energy at all times because everybody can beat you," said the 6-11 sophomore who had nine rebounds and two blocked shots to go with his 16 points. "The teams that we lost to we should have beaten. Every game that we played that we lost we should have won."
Horford spent most of his day going toe to toe with Davis, the man-child whose power game is the best in the Southeastern Conference. Davis had 16 points and 15 rebounds, but he went 5-16 from the floor and he had four critical turnovers. Nine of Davis' 15 rebounds were on the offensive glass and most of those were from chasing his own missed shots. Horford got only four rebounds but his assignment was to force Davis into a bad shooting night and to create space for other Gators to grab rebounds by putting a body on the LSU big man.
"I knew I wasn't going to come in here and get 20 rebounds," said Horford. "Boxing out a guy like him is really a tough job."
Horford, who blocked four LSU shots and altered at least five others, liked what he saw from the Gators Saturday but he's well aware that Florida has to repeat that same effort every game.
"We have to have that same type of intensity all the time," he said. "When our team figures that out we're going to be a tough team to play."