Florida's 74-64 win over Vanderbilt carried a bit more significance than maintaining the Gators (20-2, 7-0 SEC) hold on the top spot in the nation. It was the 20th win of the season and the first time in school history that the Gators have won 20 games prior to February. It was the ninth straight 20-win season for Coach Billy Donovan. Florida only had five 20-win seasons in school history prior to his arrival in 1996. It was also Florida's thirteenth straight win, fifth longest in school history, and fifteenth straight win at the O-Dome, the third longest streak in school history.
What mattered most, however, was earning a three-game cushion over Vanderbilt (5-3 in league play) in the SEC East. Georgia, next Wednesday night's opponent in Athens, also took its third SEC loss (to Tennessee Wednesday night), leaving only Kentucky (5-2) within two games of the Gators as the SEC nears the halfway point of the conference season. Over in the SEC West, all six teams have at least four league losses.
Florida entered the game first in the nation in both the rankings and shooting percentage but the Gators didn't play like the number one team in the first half and they certainly didn't shoot like a team that was hitting 54.4 percent of its shots on the season. The Gators missed their first six shots and hit only 9-31 in the first half. Entering the game, Florida was shooting 43.7 percent from the three-point stripe, good for tenth nationally, but the Gators missed their first five three-point attempts and they were only 2-9 on three-pointers at the half. If not for a 10-14 performance from the foul line, the Gators would have faced more than an 11-point deficit at the half.
Vandy, meanwhile, was tearing through the Florida defense almost at will. The Commodores kept putting the ball on the floor and taking it to the hoop. The main culprit was Derrick Byars, an explosive 6-6 wing who scored 14 of his game-high 21 points in the first half.
The only bright spot for the Gators was their ability to shut down Vandy from the three-point stripe. The Commodores came into the game averaging more than nine three-pointers a game so priority number one for the Gators was to take that element out of Vandy's game. The Commodores were 1-8 in the first half and were only slightly better (2-10) in the second half.
"I was surprised we were only down by 11," said Donovan. "When you look at our field goal percentages and their field goal percentages, if they make just two more three-point shots we're probably down 17 or 18 going into the second half and maybe that's insurmountable to be able to overcome that kind of deficit."
Vandy didn't make the three-point shots in the first half, nor did the Commodores knock them down in the second. Florida, meanwhile, came alive from long distance in the second half and that was a dagger in Vandy's heart. Taurean Green knocked down a three-ball as part of an early seven-point burst out of the second half gate to bring Florida back within four at 41-37 and that was when things got a bit bizarre.
The Commodores had an inside mismatch with 6-5 Dan Cage going against Florida's 6-0 Walter Hodge. Cage took a pass in the paint, turned and tried to get off a three-footer but Hodge blocked the shot. Hodge reached to retrieve the ball but the referee signaled Florida possession and that sent Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings through the roof. He was teed up for a technical foul which was protested by Vandy assistant King Rice. Rice was also nailed for a tech and he was ejected from the game since it was the second tech on the Vandy bench with 16:35 left in the game.
Green went to the line where he hit three of the four technical foul shots and then he finished off the sequence 31 seconds later when he drained another three to complete a six-point possession to give the Gators their first lead since the 9:46 mark in the first half, 43-41.
"That was a momentum shift, no doubt about it," said Donovan.
That momentum shift seemed to open things up for Lee Humphrey, the SEC's leading three-point shooter who took over the game. Humphrey was 1-3 from three-point range in the first half, but he got hot at just the right time to give the Gators a cushion. With the score tied at 45-45, Humphrey hit a three-ball on each of the Gators' next three possessions, pushing Florida out to a 54-47 lead with 13:02 remaining in the game.
Humphrey, now 28-40 from the three-point line (70 percent) in seven conference games, was the target of Vandy's first half defense. The Commodores chased him with Byars and Shane Foster but that actually played into Florida's hands.
"It takes a lot of energy and it takes a lot out of you when you have to run around and guard," said Donovan. "When Byars and Shane Foster have to run around and guard Humphrey and they have to guard Brewer and they chase them off screens …when you force them to do that it has an impact on offense."
The Vandy defenders spent so much time chasing Humphrey on the perimeter that they were drained of their energy. It showed especially for Byars, who managed only seven points in the second half after the brilliant first-half explosion.
"I think offenses wear down defenses," said Donovan. "If you make teams guard for a long period of time and can get what you want and go inside and out, that generally over a course of 30-40 minutes will take away a shooter's legs."
Once Humphrey got it going on the outside, the Gators started finding Noah (19 points to lead the Gators) and Al Horford (12 points and a game-high 12 rebounds) on the inside. And once the Gators got the inside-outside combination working, Vanderbilt was in deep trouble. When Horford dunked on an alley-oop pass from Green with 5:08 remaining in the game it opened up Florida's first 10-point lead of the game at 65-55. Vandy made one mini-run, scoring four straight points to cut the margin to six, but a left-handed shot off a pirouette by Noah and Humphrey's fifth three-pointer of the game with 2:56 left were the daggers that cut the heart out of the Commodores.
Donovan felt Florida had the openings in the first half to get the inside-outside game going because of the way Vandy was trying to take Humphrey out of the game, but Florida didn't take advantage. When Humphrey started hitting in the second half, it gave the appearance that the middle opened up but Donovan said the inside stuff was open even in the first half.
"It looked that way but it was really opened up in the first half the way they were guarding Lee," said Donovan. "I thought the middle was open in the first half, I just didn't think our bigs did a good enough job of posting nor did we do a good enough job of feeding."
Donovan felt the lack of first half offense carried over to Florida's defense. The Gators weren't hitting shots and they looked slow-footed on defense except when they defended the three-point line.
"When guys are making shots and the offense is going well it makes it a little more enjoyable coming back to play defense," said Donovan. "I didn't think we had the necessary focus in the first half because I thought our offense was so bad. Shooting 29 percent in the first half … we've never had a first half like that."
Fortunately for Donovan and the Gators, they didn't have a second half like that.
GAME NOTES: How good was Florida's second half offense? The Gators went 16-22 from the floor (6-10 from the three-point line) and shot 72.7 percent in the second half. They were 47.2 percent (25-53) for the game overall and 42.1 percent (8-19) from the three-point line … The Gators have allowed their last three opponents (Mississippi State, Auburn and Vanderbilt) to shoot just 22.9 percent from the three-point line (12-57). Only Georgia in the SEC opener has shot better than 40 percent from the three-point line against the Gators … Horford recorded his eighth double-double of the season and the 20th of his career … Humphrey has made 236 three-pointers in his career. He's eight shots away from overtaking Greg Stolt (243) in third place all-time at Florida. Brett Nelson holds the all-time Gator record with 274 while Anthony Roberson is second with 267 … Florida has held 10 straight opponents under 50 percent from the field … All five of Florida's starters have a chance to make the 1,000 point club in the next few games. Brewer has 971 career points while Noah has 939, Green 935, Humphrey 908 and Horford 863.