Defense Carries Gators To Sweet 16

JACKSONVILLE --- The turning point for the Florida Gators was after that loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa, a game in which the defense fell apart and the Gators were drilled at the three point line. They lost for the third straight time that Sunday afternoon and collectively, they knew something had to change and change quickly or else a season of great promise would become one of those what might have been kind of years.

Twenty-eight games into the season all the things that Coach Billy Donovan had been preaching finally sunk in as they came to the conclusion that just playing harder than anyone else and wanting to win more than anyone else wasn't good enough if they didn't take care of the basics of the game.

Wins over Georgia and over Kentucky in Lexington were the first steps in the evolution and then came last week's three-game sweep of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Two games into the NCAA Tournament, the lessons learned back in Tuscaloosa still ring true. They're still playing with the same passion and determination they've played with all season long, but now they're taking care of the ball. Now they're defending ferociously. Now they're making it hell to knock down three-pointers. Now they're blocking out and winning the rebounding battles. On the offensive end, they're back to making the extra pass and going for the high percentage shot.

Saturday afternoon, Wisconsin-Milwaukee --- last year's Cinderella team that made it to the Sweet 16 --- became the latest team taken to school by the new look, new attitude Gators. Florida took care of the ball, turning it over just 10 times to a team that's accustomed to forcing 20-plus turnovers per game. The Gators played lights out defense, holding the Panthers to 36.1 percent shooting and just 7-20 from the three-point line. Florida shot 53.6 percent and dominated the boards, 41-33.

All those things added up to a second straight dominating performance as the Gators smacked the Panthers, 82-60, advancing to the Sweet 16 in Minneapolis next Friday night. It's the first time the Gators have advanced that far in the Big Dance since the 2000 team made it to the national championship game. The win was Florida's seventh straight and it allowed the Gators (29-6) to tie the school record for wins in a season. The only two times Florida has won that many games, the Gators made it to the Final Four (1994 and 2000).

None of it would have been possible, however, without the late season metamorphosis that transformed Florida from a bunch of hustlers who were just getting by to a team capable of dominating in every phase of the game.

"They have started to understand that playing hard and playing passionately isn't good enough to win," said Donovan. "I made that comment when we lost those three in a row. People said you're really struggling and you've hit a skid. To me you hit a skid or you're struggling when you get blown out by 25 points.

"We lost those games because we thought that our passion, our enthusiasm, our intensity, just playing that way could help us overcome our mistakes. I think that helped us understand that there's another piece to this that we have to get better at. We turn it over too much. We miss block outs. We don't screen sometimes correctly. What's good is that those things have become magnified to our team. Now they can see there is another piece to winning."

Adrian Tigert #44 of the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers attempts to block a shot by Joakim Noah #13 of the Florida Gators during round two of the NCAA National Championship on March 18, 2006 at the Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The big piece to winning Saturday was on the defensive end. Florida's game plan was to take Boo Davis and Joah Tucker completely out of their games even if it meant giving up a big scoring game to the Panthers' talented center Adrian Tigert. Tigert had one of his best games ever with 27 points and eight rebounds, but he didn't get the kind of help he needed from Davis and Tucker. Davis was held to 10 points on 3-12 shooting and Tucker went 4-14 and scored nine.

It was Lee Humphrey that took Davis out of his game. Everywhere that Davis went, Humphrey was there. The junior from Maryville, Tennessee battled his way through one screen after another and when Davis sprung free for a second, Corey Brewer or Joakim Noah or Al Horford stepped out and ran right at the 6-3 scoring guard.

"We just tried to give Lee one assignment which was to shadow him and chase him," said Donovan. "He's got great range, great legs … he's a very good player. We just wanted to make him play within the three-point line. They do a very good job of creating screening for him, pick and rolls, even triple handoffs to try to get him free. Any time one of our bigs crossed up with Lee or they were trying to get him open, we just said we were running at him. We were going to get the ball out of his hands and we were going to make someone else shoot. Lee did a good job."

Davis hit a pair of threes in the first half and had eight points at the half, but he was 0-5 from the field in the second half, getting his only points at the foul line.

On the interior, Joakim Noah turned in another dominating game. His four blocked shots totally took the inside game away from the Panthers and on the offensive end, he scored 17 points to go with his seven rebounds, six assists and two steals.

The complement for Noah offensively came early on from Corey Brewer, who scored eight points in only seven minutes in the first half due to foul troubles. In the second half, Brewer lit up the Panthers for 16 more points. His 23-point effort included 5-8 from the three-point line.

Florida's Al Horford, left, and Chris Richard cheer on their team during the second half of a second-round NCAA basketball tournament game against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Saturday, March 18, 2006, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

"I knocked my first one down and it [my shot] was feeling good," said Brewer. "My guys kept looking for me and I kept getting wide open because they were setting great screens. It was going down." Brewer picked up his second foul with 11:20 remaining in the half on a charge and that sent him to the bench until the intermission. Al Horford got his second foul with 5:55 remaining in the half and that sent him to the bench as well.

Florida turned to the bench for help and found it in Chris Richard and Adrian Moss, the team's only senior. Their combined four points and seven first half rebounds helped to get Noah untracked. After an erratic start in which nothing was falling, Noah got back into the game with his passing as he picked up four assists. He finished the half strong with a couple of dunks in the final minute of the half to push Florida to a 34-26 lead.

Horford picked up his third foul within the first minute of the second half so Richard and Moss again came to the rescue off the bench. Moss hit a couple of critical shots on the inside to help Florida expand the lead into double digits at 49-38.

At that point the Gators went on a 9-3 mini-run with Brewer hitting a turnaround in the lane and a driving layup. Down 58-42, Milwaukee responded with five straight points but Horford and Noah took over to score eight of Florida's next 11 points on a run that pretty much ended this year's Cinderella dreams for the Panthers.

Even when Taurean Green went out of the game with his fourth foul with 7:20 remaining, the Gators were never challenged. Florida maintained its poise and kept up the intensity on the defensive end which is all that was needed for an advance to the Sweet 16.

Horford acknowledged that Florida's defense was indeed the difference in the team the last seven games compared to those first 28.

Florida's Corey Brewer (2) falls over Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Boo Davis after attempting a shot in the first half of a second-round NCAA basketball tournament game Saturday, March 18, 2006, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

"It was after the Alabama game we said we have to step our defensive game up and I think since then we've been doing a good job," he said. "We're holding teams down and locking them up and that's making it easy for us on the offensive end."

Noah, whose two-game totals in the NCAA read 33 points, 15 rebounds, 13 assists, nine blocked shots and five steals, agreed with Horford's assessment. "When we play on edge like that and we play with that intensity we're a tough team to beat because we're really playing possession by possession, he said. "That's important and when bad things happen --- and throughout a game there are going to be times when teams go on a run … that's part of the game --- you have to react and stay focused. It's all about how you react to it.

"We're just worrying about the present moment and the next play. We've been playing like that since the Alabama game. We're all on the same page now. We're a dangerous team." Noah said his grandfather Zacharie is back in Cameroon where he's doing his part to help the team.

"He sacrificed a couple of chickens for us," he said. "Why do you think we're winning? Maybe a goat next time."

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