No. 6 Florida 77, Arkansas 56
ATLANTA (AP)—The Florida Gators happily ascended the ladder, a pair of scissors in hand, to snip away at the nylon. They’re not about to pass up the chance to celebrate, even though they would much rather be cutting down the nets at the Georgia Dome three weeks from now.
Sending an emphatic message to those who thought they looked vulnerable at the end of the regular season, the No. 6 Gators finished off three routs in three days with a 77-56 blowout of Arkansas in the SEC championship game Sunday.
Florida (29-5) is certainly on the sort of roll that could bring them back to Atlanta for the Final Four. The Gators received the top seed in the Midwest Regional and will play Jackson State on Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“Six more wins!” a Florida fan yelled at Joakim Noah as he strolled off the court, orange-and-blue beads dangling from his neck.
“I’m still hungry for more,” Noah screamed back. “I’m never satisfied.”
Which might just be Florida’s secret. While the Gators captured their first national championship a year ago, they’re still playing with the passion, desire and pure joy of a team that wants more.
“We’re not defending our championship,” Florida’s Chris Richard said. “We won that one (last year). Nobody can take that one away. We just want to win to win another one.”
It was another devastating team effort by Florida, 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.
“It’s March,” Joakim said. “This is our time of year.”
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, tournament MVP Al Horford scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, while Noah had 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists. On the perimeter, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey each made a couple of 3-pointers, even though Arkansas focused on stopping the guards. The swingman, Corey Brewer, chipped in with 9 points, five rebounds and three assists. Richard and Walter Hodge combined for 17 points off the bench.
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 during a pileup 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.
Arkansas received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The Razorbacks, the No. 12 seed in the East Regional, will play fifth-seeded Southern California in the first round.
There were reports that Arkansas already was preparing a buyout of Heath’s contract, but an NCAA bid could change those plans.
Florida got off to a 17-0 lead over Georgia in the quarterfinals and jumped out 13-2 on Ole Miss in the semis. 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 3-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 down court 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.
Florida did its best work at the defensive end, limiting three opponents to a cumulative 33.7 percent shooting. Arkansas fared the best, even though the Razorbacks connected on just 23-of-64 (35.9 percent), including 3-of-24 from beyond the arc.
Michael Washington led the Razorbacks with 17.
With just over a minute remaining, Florida coach Billy Donovan cleared his bench, allowing the starters to come off to a standing ovation.
“SEC! SEC! SEC!” the Florida fans chanted.
Noah, Horford and Brewer really deserved the applause, passing up a chance to be NBA first-rounders because they wanted to go for back-to-back national titles.
“One more year! One more year!” the crowd chanted hopefully.
The selfless juniors already added a couple of championships to their resumes, sweeping the SEC’s regular-season and tournament titles with the greatest of ease. Now, they’ll go for the championship they really came back for.
They’d love to cut down the nets one more time.