GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Top-ranked Florida opened this season much like it finished the last one—running the floor, creating easy baskets and dominating another opponent.
Once again, Joakim Noah was at the center.
Noah scored 11 points, tied a career high with 15 rebounds and added six assists and four blocks as the defending national champions began their bid to repeat with a 79-54 victory over Samford on Friday night.
“I enjoyed watching them play tonight,” coach Billy Donovan said. “There’s obviously a lot of talk about a target on our back and defending this and defending that. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot. Everybody wants a shot at us.
“People are talking about playing the national champions. That’s going on in the other locker room. It’s like a heavyweight fight every game. Here comes a new challenge. Let’s go play.”
This one was a knockout.
The Gators shot 59 percent from the field, had 38 rebounds, 16 assists, 12 blocks and just six turnovers. They won their 16th consecutive opener and improved to 11-0 on opening night under Donovan.
Trying to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to repeat as national champions, Florida looked hungry from the start. The Gators made their first seven baskets and opened up an 18-5 lead.
Taurean Green made three 3-pointers, Al Horford hit two short turnaround jumpers in the lane and Corey Brewer drained one from behind the arc and one from the baseline.
Florida mostly went inside the rest of the way, finishing with 49 points in the point against an undersized opponent.
“That’s our identity,” said Brewer, who had 19 points and six rebounds. “We play hard, create easy baskets, get all the loose balls and play tough defense.”
Horford and Green had 15 points apiece and combined to shoot 11-of-13 from the field. Lee Humphrey, the sharp-shooting guard who had several key baskets in the NCAA tournament, missed all three shots from 3-point range and finished with four points.
“The edge was there,” Green said. “I like the way we came out and played. You could see the fire in our eyes, the intensity. We took it to the next level.”
Joe Ross Merritt had 17 points to lead Samford, a team that runs the Princeton offenses, shoots a steady flow of 3-pointers and was the preseason pick to win the Ohio Valley Conference. Randall Gulina added 16.
But the Bulldogs were outmatched at every position.
The Gators led 39-23 at the break, opened the second half with a 23-13 run and extended the lead to 73-40 at one point.
Brewer put the exclamation point on the victory with about five minutes to play. He blocked a long-range shot, then stole the ball, drove to the lane and delivered a reverse jam. Noah instantly started pounding his chest and celebrating in front of the student section—reminiscent of the title game against UCLA.
The game could have been another national championship celebration— especially since Florida played on the same floor it beat the Bruins 73-57 on in April—but Donovan made sure the night had nothing to do with last season.
The 2006 NCAA championship banner went up the previous night with no fanfare and no one watching. The Final Four floor that Florida bought from the NCAA for $60,000 was resurfaced and repainted orange and blue. And there wasn’t even a single mention of Florida’s title during pregame introductions.
Donovan wanted his players to know this was a new season with a new team and new goals.
“What happened last year is going to go down in history and be remembered forever,” Donovan said. “The school has done a great job of honoring our team. But I think there’s a point where you have to say this is great and fun, but you have to more forward.
“The only thing people remember is last game we played. The last game we played was against UCLA. Although our guys are trying to move forward, it’s hard for the people out there, because it’s the last year we game. At least now we’ve got a game under our belts that wasn’t the UCLA game.”