It would take a magnificent effort to beat the Gators that played the first half and held a 45-26 lead at the break after shooting 59.3 percent and dominating Ole Miss defensively, holding the Rebels to 35.7 percent from the floor overall and 22 percent from the three-point line. Those first half Gators could beat any team in the nation.
If the first half was everything that can go right going right, the second half was Murphy's Law personified. Those same Gators that could have beaten anyone in the nation in the first half probably could have lost to Ole Miss if not for some timely free throw shooting down the stretch and the Rebels losing two of their three best big men to fouls.
"They came in and took it to us and we had that look in our eyes like we didn't want to compete like we needed to compete," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan. "The biggest thing to me was our defense. I don't think we defended very well."
Name it and it went south in the second half. Florida shot incredibly well --- 12-19 for 63.2 percent --- but the 19 shots tells the tale here. The Gators only got 19 shots up because they turned the ball over 12 times against an aggressive full court press. For long stretches of the half it seemed as if the game was being played entirely on the Ole Miss end of the floor because the Gators couldn't get the ball across half court.
Florida would inbound the ball almost every time in the right corner to Taurean Green and Ole Miss trapped immediately. That's where Florida's problems escalated and a 25-point Gator lead began to disintegrate.
"First of all, Taurean Green needs to get himself off the baseline," said Donovan. "When you run into the coffin corner to receive an inbounds pass, it's the easiest guy to trap but he still insists on running down there.
"I also think that Joakim's lack of moving along the baseline to inbounds the ball … on a made basket you have the whole baseline to run. To stand there and not even move and try to inbounds the ball is a problem. Because of our initiating our offense on the press of where the ball was inbounded it led to all sorts of problems because we had the wrong people handling the basketball and we had the wrong people in the wrong spots."
Florida was up 25 points (53-28) because the Gators played the first two minutes of the second half like they played the full 20 minutes of the first. A Corey Brewer layup, a Lee Humphrey three-ball and a three-point play the old fashioned way by Joakim Noah sprung the Gators to their largest lead of the game but that's when the wheels started to fall off for Florida. Ole Miss scored on three straight possessions to knock the lead back down to 19 points, creating a momentum shift and a change in the Rebels demeanor. They went from a team just trying to get out of the joint with a loss under 30 points to a team that thought it could come all the way back to win.
After trading a few baskets, the Rebels started to make their move with just under 11 minutes left in the game. Down 64-46, they scored 11 straight points, turning a blowout into a cliffhanger. When Clarence Sanders scored off a steal with 8:19 remaining in the game, cutting the score to 64-57, the Gators had reversed roles and were the team teetering on the verge of total collapse.
That's when Al Horford and Noah took matters into their own hands to regain some semblance of momentum for the Gators. After a timeout, Horford made a move on the baseline to get inside for a layup to increase the Florida cushion to nine points. Following a steal by the Rebels' Greg Hardy, Noah and Horford blocked two consecutive shots. Horford rebounded the second block and started the break, dribbling across the timeline where he gave the ball up to Noah who ran the length of the floor and finished with a thundering jam with 6:54 remaining in the game. Fouled on the play, Noah converted the free throw to increase Florida's lead to 69-59.
Ole Miss got the lead back to seven two more times but Florida had answers and the Gators escaped with a win in a game they could have lost.
"I thought we became very complacent," said Donovan. "We got up 25 points and we tried to cruise in. We didn't play for 40 minutes. We played for about 23."
What magnified Florida's collapse was the way the Gators played in the first half when their ball movement was so good they had 12 assists for 16 made baskets. When Ole Miss tried to shut the Gators down on the inside Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green delivered threes (two each in the first half). When the Rebels had to extend the defense to defend the three-point line, the Gators simply moved it inside where Noah was unstoppable.
Florida busted the game wide open in a short stretch that saw Green sandwich two threes around a Brewer layup off an alley oop pass from Green and a Horford free throw for a 9-1 run that extended the Gators to a 28-14 lead with 8:56 left in the half. Humphrey (seven points) and Noah (six) combined for 13 of Florida's final 17 points of the first half. Humphrey and Noah finished the half with 10 points each.
"The first half we played about as well as we've played all year long," said Donovan. I thought our energy and our focus was terrific. I think you always look at how you come out the first couple of minutes in the second half, being up 19 we scored six points and we're up by 25. Then I thought we made some substitutions and our bench made some plays that I think ignited some of their energy."
Florida's bench was indeed a problem. Noah led Florida with 24 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots while Green added 14 points and Humphrey 13. Brewer and Horford each had nine but the Florida bench gave the Gators only 10 points and three rebounds.
When Donovan subbed early in the second half, the Gators bogged down and by the time the starters got back in, the momentum was clearly in favor of Ole Miss.
"To be honest with you, I got nervous with our bench," said Donovan. "I really did. I made some substitutions and some turnovers took place, some travels and some things led to some really easy opportunities for their team. When our veterans got back in I thought our older guys handling the ball against pressure wasn't very good at all."
Finding some answers from the bench is going to be a necessity for Donovan, who admitted his starters were tired in the final ten minutes when Ole Miss was applying the pressure.
"We do have numbers on the bench but it's like sometimes you don't know what you're going to get from certain guys so you have to throw guys in there to see what happens," he said. "I thought our bench did a pretty good job in the first half giving us some minutes. In the second I thought our bench contributed to the run to give them hope and then when our veterans and older guys got back in I thought their complacency, thinking okay it's going to be okay, we're back in the game, it's going to be fine, was a problem too."
Yet, even with the problems that Ole Miss exposed the Gators did win to remain unbeaten in the SEC. Noah put it in perspective.
"A win is a win," said Noah. "We didn't play as well as we should have in the second half but we'll learn from it and move on. It's okay to win and learn. We can do that. We're vets now. I'm not devastated … it shouldn't be. It's Saturday, Florida, it's beautiful. It could be worse you know."