Gators band together, steady for every opponent's shot
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- OK, so this is how it's going to be in the SEC for Florida.
Get ready, Gators. Everyone is coming at you. No one is going to be afraid. And don't be surprised if you get knocked back a bit, go down by double figures and met by a hungry team looking to put you away.
One slight problem for the rest of the league, though: Florida is well aware that this is coming.
So, do what you can, but don't expect this Gators team to become selfish, uninterested or flat for a full 40.
The Commodores took the game right to Florida here at the always-rockin' O-Dome and led the Gators by 11 at the halftime break. The final score? Florida 74, Vandy 64 ... with a nice 21-point spread in the second half for the Gators.
The Gators had what coach Billy Donovan said was tunnel vision in the first half. It showed as Florida flustered its way to a 29-percent shooting half, 22 percent on 3s, and watched as the hottest team in the SEC at the time -- the 'Dores (love the moniker) -- lit them up for 53 percent from the field.
"It wasn't who we are," Donovan said of the first half. "But I can say this: I'm not saying we thrive on being down 11 at the half, but with all that this group goes through, I can't imagine going through this with a different set of kids.
"They understand the whole idea of a target on their back and they know if they're not ready to play, they'll lose. They don't think they're better than they are. After the Tennessee game [here on Saturday], we'll have eight games left and five on the road, and every environment will be crazy. They're excited about it and don't shy away from it."
Florida found its groove at both ends. Lee Humphrey, the human dagger on this squad, buried four 3s. Al Horford and Joakim Noah scored 15 of their combined 31 and Taurean Green buried a few key 3s to help keep Vandy at bay. Florida ended up shooting 72 percent in the second half. That included a 60 percent mark on 3s.
"We came in pretty confident, were trying to throw the first punch," said Vanderbilt's Ross Neltner. "That's the No. 1 team, a team 6-0 in the SEC, and we were trying to take the upper hand. But they took an 11-point deficit and got it to eight and then to two and then they're up six and they're dunking and hitting 3s and stuck it to us."
As for Vandy's four-guard spread that had worked so well in the first half? Well, Derrick Byars went from 6-of-9 to 9-of-18 in the final box score as the mobile and quick-footed Horford jumped out on the perimeter to guard him. Guard Alex Gordon didn't hit a second-half shot after scoring five points in the first. Neltner and Shan Foster scored a combined 10 points in the second half.
"Every team is coming out swinging on us and we knew Vanderbilt had been playing well," Green said of the 'Dores, who had won at Kentucky and LSU en route to a 5-2 mark in the league prior to Wednesday.
"They didn't knock us back on our heels, but we took bad shots and they rebounded well on the break," Green said. "We know teams are going to make runs on us, and if we're messing up we'll fix it quick. We can't lose on our own court. We just grinded it out defensively."
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings wasn't into moral victories after beating Florida for a half. He was pretty blunt, saying "when they turn it up, they're hard to play. We played a little better than they did for 20 minutes and they played quite a bit better than we did for 20 minutes."
The Gators are getting every SEC team, it seems, as that team is ascending. Mississippi State had just beaten Auburn by 11 and was jacked to have the No. 1 team in the building. The Bulldogs were up on the Gators early but couldn't hold them off and lost by three. Auburn beat Tennessee and Alabama at home and was jazzed to get the Gators (they lost 91-66).
Up next for Florida is Tennessee, which, still without Chris Lofton, beat Georgia in Knoxville on Wednesday.
"This game made us better," Donovan said. "I can tell these guys, 'Look how can we shoot 72 percent in the second half and 29 in the first? We'll have lapses where we have some meltdowns, but the first half wasn't who we are."
No, this team is about as hungry, grounded and as unselfish as maybe any team that has returned five starters off a national championship team. Oh wait, that hasn't happened before in this NBA-early entry era lately. So maybe that explains why Florida is becoming such a machine.
Sure, the Gators aren't flawless and nowhere near as dominating as they could be if they maxed out their potential (the early-90s UNLV comparisons Western Kentucky's Darrin Horn used in Las Vegas in November were a bit much in hindsight), but it's clear that when they're clicking together they're extremely hard to beat.
"Here's the thing about our team: You take one of the working parts off and we're not the same," Donovan said. "We are a team. That's who we are. We're not the most talented. We've had guys' reputations go through the roof, but look at what happens when you take one of the parts off. We're not as good. Corey Brewer was sick and didn't play at Florida State and we lose. We are the consummate team."
And that's why this squad is ready for everyone's best shot in this league. The punches are coming and it seems like the Gators have the stomach to take some body blows before settling back to return the volley.
"We will have to play a lot better if we're going to beat them," Stallings said. "They're the best team in the country. I really appreciate our effort and our guys played as hard as they could in the second half, but we got outplayed by a wide margin."
None of this means the Gators will go through the SEC undefeated. No one expects that to occur. But, ultimately, few in the country see a team, outside of North Carolina, that can match the Gators come March.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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