Gators show bite in shutting down Ohio State
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Florida coach Billy Donovan finally pulled his starters with the No. 4 Gators leading No. 3 Ohio State by 29 points with 75 seconds to go Saturday, four Florida students dressed in three-piece suits lofted a pair of hand-made trophies in the front row.
One was a replica of the trophy Florida claimed last April by winning the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The other was a replica of the crystal football trophy the Gators hope to win when they play No. 1 Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.
Florida football coach Urban Meyer, who was watching from courtside Saturday, can only hope his team plays as hard and well as Donovan's did against the Buckeyes.
The Gators (11-2) used a remarkable 31-7 run in the second half to crush Ohio State 86-60 in front of a sold-out crowd of 12,621, the largest to ever watch a basketball game in Stephen O'Connell Center. Florida led by 13 points in the first half and 29 in the second. After the Buckeyes tied the score at 40 with about 17 minutes to go, the Gators scored on nine of their next 10 possessions to go ahead by 25 points.
"I'm sure a lot of the football players were here and watching it on TV," Gators forward Joakim Noah said. "We set the tone. We're really excited for them. Let's go get it."
The game was considered a precursor to the schools' upcoming meeting on the football field, which obviously will have much more on the line. Not even a rare top-five matchup in basketball in late December could overshadow the football game.
Meyer chatted with former Buckeyes receiver and NFL Pro Bowler Cris Carter at halftime. Signs alluding to the football game littered the stands, including one that read: "Tell Troy He's Next," referring to Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith, the Heisman Trophy winner.
"It's time for the football team now," said Gators guard Taurean Green, who scored 24 points on 9-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-7 on 3-pointers. "We're going to be cheering them on. It's exciting."
For the first time in 13 games this season, Florida's basketball team played like the squad that won six games in a row during the NCAA Tournament last season to claim the school's first basketball national championship. The Gators shot 60.3 percent, including a whopping 74.1 percent in the second half. They made 9 of 18 3-point attempts and had a 42-25 advantage in rebounds.
"It's one game," Donovan said. "But for our guys, it's a reminder of how good we can be."
For the Buckeyes (10-2), it was a reminder of how far they still have to go. Freshman center Greg Oden, who had averaged 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in four games since returning from wrist surgery, was neutralized by Noah and junior forward Al Horford.
The Gators were buoyed by the return of Horford, their leading scorer and rebounder. He had been ruled out of the contest by Donovan on Thursday because of a badly sprained left ankle. Horford missed the last two games and practiced poorly on Thursday and Friday. Even in Saturday's early shootaround, Horford said he performed "horrible."
"Coach Donovan just told me to go out there and try and if it felt bad to pull myself out," Horford said. "I wouldn't say I was 100 percent, but I was out there trying to give 100 percent."
And that was more than enough for the Gators. Horford didn't start the game, but went in after sitting just over two minutes. He played somewhat cautiously in the first half, failing to score and taking only two shots with six rebounds. But then Horford played more aggressively in the second half, finishing with 11 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.
"Obviously, he showed today he's one of the best big men in the country," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "He was as impressive as he could be. We planned all week like he was going to play."
And Horford was even more impressive defending Oden, a 7-footer from Indianapolis. Oden is widely considered the best freshman in the country and potentially the No. 1 choice in next year's NBA draft if he leaves Ohio State after only one season.
"He's a monster," Noah said. "I've never played against anyone like that dude before."
And Oden is still essentially playing with only one hand. He missed the Buckeyes' first seven games after undergoing surgery on his right wrist June 16. A pin was removed from the wrist Oct. 19, but he still wears a black cast on his right hand. Oden is forced to shoot foul shots left-handed and rarely uses his right hand.
With Noah, Horford and senior Chris Richard going right at Oden, the Buckeyes' star freshman had one point and missed both of his shots from the field in the second half. He finished with seven points, six rebounds and four blocked shots. Oden picked up his fourth foul with 7:51 to play and sat out the final 3 minutes, 21 seconds of the game.
"I think [Oden] can learn he needs his right hand," Matta said. "When you go against that kind of size, and you have only one hand and it's not your dominant hand, you get exploited. They were physical and he didn't have counters."
The Buckeyes, who play Coppin State on Dec. 30, their last game before Big 10 play opens against Indiana on Jan. 2, will be much better when Oden can use both hands. They rely too much on the 3-point shot without an effective post presence -- they averaged nearly 10 made 3-pointers per game before Saturday.
"That's what I'm wishing for at Christmas," Matta said, of Oden's right hand. "So we'll find out in two days. ... I honestly don't know [when it will be fully healed]. It's Mother Nature."
Oden, who turns 19 on Jan. 22, already has defied nature. He resembles a grown man, weighing more than 280 pounds and wearing a full beard. Before the game, a Florida student shouted, "Hey, Oden! What were the 1970s like?"
"We were trying to double him, but they were playing four guards out and it's hard to double him when they do that," Noah said. "We tried to make him run up and down the court and get him out of his comfort zone. He's a true center. He's an animal. He's a specimen."
But Noah, who scored seven points with nine rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots, said the Gators were effective against Oden because they weren't afraid of him.
"I don't think nobody on this team is scared of anyone," Noah said. "People should be afraid of us."
And opponents will be afraid of the Gators again after they dismantled the third-ranked team in the country by nearly 30 points. Florida has already been besieged by injuries and illness as it tries to become the first team to repeat as national champions since Duke in 1991 and 1992.
Noah has been bothered by an upper respiratory infection. Junior forward Corey Brewer, who averages better than 11 points, missed two games with mononucleosis.
But now all of Florida's key parts are back. And so are the Gators.
"Games are tests and Ohio State was the first semester exam," Noah said. "We passed it and now we've got to get ready for the second semester."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.