Florida Sends a Message With Dominant Showing

Associated Press
Monday, March 12, 2007

ATLANTA, March 11 -- For all those who thought Florida looked vulnerable at the end of the regular season, the Gators sent an emphatic message in the Southeastern Conference tournament: The defending national champions are doing just fine.

The sixth-ranked Gators finished off three routs in three days, beating Arkansas, 77-56, on Sunday to claim their third straight SEC tournament championship and in the process lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Again, it was a devastating team effort by Florida (29-5), which lost three of its last five regular season games but showed no weaknesses at the Georgia Dome. The Gators ripped through their opponents with an average winning margin of 19.7 points.

"This is our time of year," Joakim Noah said.

No one at the SEC tournament would dispute that.

Arkansas, which was playing in the title game for the first time since 2000, stayed close for a while -- which was more than Florida's other two opponents, Georgia and Mississippi, could say. But the Razorbacks (21-13) never really had a chance.

Florida had too much of, well, everything.

Up front, Al Horford scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Noah had 17 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. On the perimeter, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey each made a couple of three-pointers. The swingman, Corey Brewer, chipped in with nine points, five rebounds and three assists. Walter Hodge and Chris Richard combined for 17 points off the bench.

"It's just fun to play with a bunch of guys who are your homies," Noah said.

Arkansas' hopes of pulling off the upset essentially ended when junior forward Charles Thomas, coming off an 18-point, 18-rebound performance in the semifinals, injured his left ankle less than 90 seconds into the game.

He didn't return, watching the rest of the game from the bench, his ailing ankle covered in ice.

However, the Razorbacks' three wins in Atlanta were enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and, perhaps, save the job of Coach Stan Heath.

Florida got off to a 17-0 lead over Georgia in the quarterfinals and jumped out to a 13-2 lead on Ole Miss in the semifinals. Arkansas was more competitive, keeping the margin in single digits throughout the first half.

But the Gators started to pull away just before halftime. Hodge made a couple of free throws, Arkansas freshman Patrick Beverley missed a three-pointer at the buzzer and Florida trotted off to the locker room with a 36-28 lead, its biggest of the period.

The game turned into a blowout after the break. The 6-foot-11 Noah put the finishing touches on another stellar performance when he dribbled downcourt on a fast break and flipped in a shot despite being bumped by Gary Ervin. Noah swaggered off toward the Florida pep band wagging his right finger, then completed the three-point play for a 62-42 lead.

The Gators led by as many as 28 and, fittingly, swept four of the five spots on the all-SEC tournament team.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company