It Wasn't Pretty But Gators Win SEC Title

NASHVILLE, Tennessee --- If Sunday's Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game had been a beauty pageant, both contestants would have been disqualified. Pretty it wasn't but in the end the Florida Gators somehow turned the proverbial sow's ear into a silk purse as they somehow found a way to beat South Carolina 49-47 in a game that it seemed they were determined to give away.

Florida is the SEC Tournament champ for the second straight year because the Gators found a way to overcome their own mistakes --- what Coach Billy Donovan called "self-inflicted wounds" --- with a heroic last minute effort saw Joakim Noah make the game-winning play on the offensive end and the game-preserving play on the defensive end. Noah saved the Gators by coming out of nowhere to stick back Corey Brewer's miss with 11.6 seconds left and then rejecting Ronaldo Balkman's shot that would have tied the game in final two seconds.

Noah's two plays provided the game-winning margin but it should have never been that close. Florida turned the ball over 18 times in the game, missed several crucial chip shots and committed a couple of dumb fouls when South Carolina was shooting three-pointers. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Gators couldn't capitalize in the first half when South Carolina couldn't have thrown it in the ocean if its shooters were standing on the end of the pier. The Gators played South Carolina in a zone most of the first half, holding the Gamecocks to 3-25 from the field straight out of the blocks.

"I told the team last night when we were meeting that they are going to zone us until we prove we can make shots," said South Carolina Coach Dave Odom. "They're going to sit in the zone until we can prove we can make shots on this particular day."

The Gamecocks couldn't make shots, at least in the beginning, but the best the Gators could do is a 17-6 lead at the 7:05 mark on a layup by Al Horford.

Florida had a chance to go for the kill early on but Florida shot itself in the foot. Brewer got a steal and turned it into a one-on-three fast break but instead of pulling the ball out and waiting for his teammates, Brewer tried to split the defenders. Balkman stripped him and instead of a chance to expand Florida's lead to 13 or possibly 14, South Carolina had the ball for what could only be described as a bizarre series. The Gamecocks launched and missed four shots including three balls from Bryce Sheldon but on every miss they hustled down the rebound. After the fourth miss, Balkman came up with the ball and snaked under Noah for a putback to cut Florida's lead to 17-8.

After a Brewer tip-in that expanded the Gators back to 11, the Gamecocks sandwiched a pair of three-balls around a Noah dunk and suddenly the impending blowout was a seven-point game.

"It was all self-inflicted," said Donovan. "We're up by 11 and we get a stop and Corey Brewer has the ball in the middle of the floor and he tries to go in between like three guys and gets it stolen."

Once the Gamecocks got back in the game, they made every possession ugly. South Carolina worked the shot clock relentlessly, making the Gators defend the full 35 seconds. They pushed, shoved, played tough defense and took the Gators out of their offensive rhythms.

Joakim Noah blocks Renaldo Balkman's shot from going in the basket/(AP Photo/John Russell)

The Gamecocks fought their way back to a very respectable 25-18 halftime deficit, remarkable when you consider South Carolina was only 8-33 from the field.

Florida had a chance to blow the game wide open at the start of the second half but the Gators turned the ball over four of their first five possessions at a time when South Carolina had reverted to their form of the first 10 minutes of the first half.

"I really thought we contributed to them getting back in the game with our mental errors and a lot of it was the turnovers," said Donovan. "We had an opportunity to start the second half to take the lead from seven to 15 but we turned the ball over four of our first five possessions."

The Gators did manage to build the lead to 11 with 9:58 remaining when Taurean Green, who was named the tournament's most valuable player, knocked down a three-pointer to make it 38-27. South Carolina was wobbly at that point but the Gamecocks wouldn't go away. With the shot clock winding down, Tarence Kinsey answered Green's three with a three from the top of the key to make it 38-30.

Florida had a couple more chances to build the lead back up when Lee Humphrey missed a layup with 9:18 remaining, Horford missed an easy tip and then got called for an over the back foul trying to go for the miss. The Gamecocks turned the ball back to Florida when Walter Hodge picked Dwayne Day but Brewer turned the ball over and South Carolina capitalized with a quick three from Kelly to bring it back to a five-point game with 8:50 remaining.

As if the Gators hadn't shot themselves in the foot enough, after a Green layup gave Florida a 40-33 lead with 7:51, Kinsey was fouled by Noah while launching a three-pointer. He hit two of the three free throws to bring it back to a five-point game and then Kelly scored on a layup after he stole the ball from Green at midcourt to make it a 40-37 game with 7:00 left.

Florida regained its composure long enough for Brewer to hit a short jumper in the lane and a three-pointer at the 5:38 mark to expand Florida's lead back to eight at 45-37 with 4:38 left. After an exchange of baskets, Florida had the ball with 47-39 lead. All the Gators needed to do was make some stops and protect the ball but as South Carolina Coach Dave Odom said in his post-game remarks, "I thought Florida's ball handlers were a little nervous down the stretch."

Adrian Moss #4 (C holding trophy) of the Florida Gators celebrates with the SEC championship conference trophy along with his teammates following Florida's 49-47 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks during Championship game on day 4 of the SEC Men's Basketball Conference Tournament March 12, 2006 at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Kelly hit a three-pointer with 4:22 left to make it a five-point game but Florida had chances to answer and couldn't convert at the offensive end. On the defensive end, it was a Florida mistake that allowed South Carolina to break a two-minute drought. Noah arrived late as Kelly launched another three-pointer and the Florida big man was called for a foul. Kelly hit only one of the three free throws and that made it a 47-43 game with 2:11 left.

Florida turned the ball over again with 1:41 left which led to a pair of South Carolina free throws by Rocky Trice with 1:29 remaining that cut the lead to 47-45. After an air ball three attempt by Green, South Carolina tied the game for the first time on a layup by Trice with 43 seconds remaining.

That set the stage for Noah's heroics. After Florida called time out, the Gators ran a weave outside the key area that gave Brewer a chance to slash into the lane. He laid the ball high off the glass but the shot c aromed off only to have Noah tip it back in with 11.6 seconds left to give a 49-47 lead.

South Carolina moved the ball down the floor to the left corner where Kelly fired up a three over Green that fell way short. Balkman was in the right place, picking the ball off in midair but his off-balance shot to tie the game and sent it to overtime was swatted away by Noah to preserve Florida's win.

From a defensive standpoint, Donovan couldn't have asked for much more from the Gators. They held South Carolina to 18-60 from the field, a poor 30 percent, and from the three point line, the Gamecocks went 6-27 for 22.2 percent.

"Today we won because of our defense and they didn't shoot the ball particularly well," said Donovan. "I would say that it was a combination that we did at times challenge their shots and there were maybe some shots they just didn't knock down."

But in spite of Florida's superb defense, the Gators gave South Carolina one opportunity after another.

"I told our guys last night the game is going to come down to one, our ability on the fast break to take care of the basketball and go inside and work inside to out," said Donovan. "We really did a poor job in that area but give South Carolina credit. Their quickness turned us over.

"We had 18 turnovers in the game to 11 assists. We haven't done a good job in this tournament taking care of the basketball."

The win improved Florida to 27-6 for the season. The Gators will be making their eighth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament next week. South Carolina (18-15) will have a chance to defend its National Invitation Tournament championship. The Gamecocks lone shot at getting an NCAA bid rested on a win in the SEC final but that just wasn't to be on this day.

"We got a championship," said Adrian Moss, Florida's lone senior, as he walked off the court with the net hanging from his neck. "It wasn't pretty but they don't measure wins by how pretty they were. This is a great way to end my SEC career but we've got six more games to win."

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