Gators Reach Finals 3rd Straight Year

NASHVILLE, Tennessee --- Maybe it's time to recognize the fact that the Florida Gators have become the best basketball program in the Southeastern Conference. Start with eight straight years of at least 20 wins that includes the last trip to the Final Four made by any SEC team. Now throw in the fact that the Gators are in the SEC Tournament championship game for the third straight year, this year courtesy of an 81-65 blowout win over top-seeded LSU in Saturday's semifinals.

The Gators (26-6) will face upstart South Carolina (18-14) in Sunday's 1 p.m. (EDT, CBS) championship game at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. The Cinderella Gamecocks are in the title game after pulling their third shocker in three days, this one a 65-61 win over Kentucky which lost an SEC semifinal game for the first time since 1936. In the 70 years since their last loss in the semifinals the Wildcats have lost in the first round, quarter-finals and championship game but never in the semifinals until today.

The Gators came into Saturday's game almost certainly a number four seed for the NCAA Tournament which begins next week but with the win over LSU, which won the SEC's regular season title with a 14-2 record, Florida may have elevated itself into a three and there is the possibility of rising as high as a two should the Gators take care of business aga inst South Carolina. Florida is ranked number fourteen in the nation and it's RPI will certain rise with the SEC Tournament wins over Arkansas and LSU combined with Syracuse's romp through the Big East Tournament along with Wake Forest winning two games in the ACC Tournament.

Florida, which won the SEC Tournament title last year with a win over Kentucky in the championship game in Atlanta, earned its way to the championship game by overwhelming LSU in the second half, getting stops from a 2-3 zone defense that went big across the back line and getting timely scoring on the inside from Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer, and from the outside by Taurean Green.

The Gators put five players in double figures with Green leading the way with 18 points. Noah and Brewer each had 15 while Al Horford and Chris Richard each gave Florida 10.

Green, who scored 20 points in the Friday night win over Arkansas, was up all Friday night battling stomach flu. He threw up several times and got very little sleep but he was given medication and an IV Saturday morning.

"Last night I was struggling with a bad stomach ache," said Green. "I felt good today, like I wasn't even sick last night."

Rather than attend preparation me etings, Donovan let Green sleep late Saturday morning.

"He threw up several times last night and he didn't get much sleep," said Donovan. "Our trainers felt he needed to stay in bed. I'm sure tomorrow he'll feel the effects of being sick and playing so many minutes but I don't feel like he's totally drained and mentally and physically out of it."

Unlike Friday night when the Gators knocked down everything from the outside, Florida hammered it inside against LSU. The Gators finished with 42 points in the paint and after gi ving up 24 inside points to LSU in the first half, Florida's swarming zone limited LSU to 12 points from close range in the second half. Florida shot 54.4 percent (31-57) from the field while holding LSU to 44.4 percent and only 5-19 from the three-point line.

Davis, who scored 28 points in an impressive quarterfinal performance against Vanderbilt Friday night, was limited to 12 points by the Gators.

The Gators tried to stay with LSU with a man-to-man defense in the first half but the Tigers got too many easy layups. Even with Glen Davis scoring just two points in the first half, the Tigers still had a 41-38 lead at the intermission.

LSU was playing its fourth straight game without SEC Freshman of the Year Tyrus Thomas, whom the Tigers hope will be ready to go next week in the NCAA Tournament. That left LSU playing with a seven-man rotation and the combination of playing a man short and playing an afternoon game less than 16 hours after a night game took its toll physically.

"We're one guy short really to play them l ike we would have liked to play them today," said LSU Coach John Brady. "I think the game wore on a little bit and we didn't handle the fatigue as well but they [Florida] had a lot to do with that the way they played."

LSU's tank went empty about the eight-minute mark. Up until that moment, it was anybody's game. A three-pointer by Daryl Mitchell with 8:34 left tied the game at 56-56 but Florida got the ball inbounds quickly and outsprinted the Tigers down the floor with Noah finishing with a layup with 8:26 remaining, putting the Gators ahead to stay but things got a little whacky at that point. The officials stopped the game and spent five minutes reviewing the Mitchell three-pointer on ly to decide after looking at every replay angle that they had the right call to begin with. Once play resumed, Florida played with tremendous energy and LSU played on wobbly legs.

When LSU inbounded the ball after the delay the Tigers went straight to Davis and the 6-9, 325-pound load known as Big Baby lowered his shoulder and put the ball on the floor. His drive to the basket was cut short by the spindly Brewer, maybe 180 pounds soaking wet. Brewer stepped in front of Davis, held his ground and went flying when Davis slammed into him with 8:12 remaining. Davis was called for his fourth foul and the pendulum swung abruptly in Florida's direction.

"I don't know if he lost his balance but they called a charge and he got his fourth foul and when that play happened the momentum really swung their way," said Brady.

The Gators converted on their next two possessions with Brewer hitting a short jumper and then a little bank off a dazzling 360-spin move to put the Gators out front, 62-56, with 7:15 remaining. LSU answered with a Tasmin Mitchell three-pointer that brought LSU back within three but that was as close as the Tigers would get the rest of the way. Florida went on a flurry that put the game away.

In a span of two minutes the Gators put 10 points on the board starting with a dunk by Chris Richard and then eight straight by Taurean Green including a pair of three-point daggers.

"He was 3-8 from the three-point line but he made three of them or at least two for sure and maybe all three of them in the last eight minutes of the game," said LSU Coach John Brady. "He made them in a timely way. Sometimes it's not how well you shoot the three but when you make them."

Florida's second half dominance was fueled on the defensive end by Donovan's switch to the 2-3 zone. In the first half, LSU scored 24 points in the paint, most of them on easy layups off baseline drives. Donovan gambled that LSU couldn't beat the Gators from the outside so he made the Tigers shoot over the top while denying nearly everything on the inside with a very active zone.

"They didn't like what we were doing in the first half because we were getting easy baskets because they were pressing us," said Brady. "They just changed the whole tactic of the game, didn't pick us up full court at all and fell back into a zone and made us shoot balls over it."

Donovan had been contemplating going zone more often the past couple of weeks. Throughout much of the season, whenever the 6-9 Brewer left the game for any extended period of time, Donovan would insert 5-11 Walter Hodge in the game to play the shooting guard and move 6-2 Lee Humphrey down to the small forward. In some games that worked well enough because the Gators were able to compensate by out-quicking their opponents but the level of inconsistency on the boards was troubling. So Donovan decided to use the zone and go big on the back line.

He used the zone effectively Friday night against Arkansas and its tall front line, daring the Razorbacks to beat the Gators from the outside. When Horford went to the bench with his third foul at the 16:48 mark, Donovan went zone again and stuck with it the rest of the game, using the same strategy to dare the Tigers to hit the outside shots.

"We decided to play big a little bit this time of the year," said Donovan. "We haven't done a lot of that this year but we've worked on it most of the season. One of the things we've struggled with is trying to solve our rebounding problem because when I take Corey Brewer out of the game my sub is Walter Hodge and that means I'm playing Lee Humphrey at the small forward at 6-2, Walter Hodge at the two guard at 5-11 and Taurean Green at the point guard at 5-11."

When Horford went out with his third foul, Donovan went zone with Brewer, Noah (6-11) and Chris Richard (6-8) across the back line. That changed the entire complexion of the game.

Richard's performance off the bench was huge for the Gators. Horford scored 10 points in his 12 minutes of limited action but when he went out Richard gave the Gators the lift they needed with 10 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Adrian Moss also gave the Gators great minutes in the zone on defense and he gave the Gators four points on the offensive end.

The Gators will be facing a South Carolina team that beat them twice in the regular season.

"South Carolina probably surprised a few people but they're a good team," said Green.

"I'm very, very excited," said Noah. "For us as Gators this is definitely a game we wanted. To face them in the championship is definitely like a dream for us. We have to take care of our business tomorrow, be ready for war, physically, mentally and spiritually. We just have to be ready to go."

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