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Gators pull away from Commodores

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2002

GAINESVILLE -- Three weeks ago, Florida was in the midst of a three-game losing streak and sliding quickly down the ladder of the SEC East.

GAINESVILLE -- Three weeks ago, Florida was in the midst of a three-game losing streak and sliding quickly down the ladder of the SEC East.

Today, the Gators are on a three-game win streak and back in first.

Florida made its rise after a Georgia loss and its 80-54 victory over Vanderbilt in front of 12,497 at the O'Connell Center on Saturday. With his 120th victory, coach Billy Donovan passed Sam McAllister for second all-time in school history. "Collectively, as a basketball team, we played really well," Donovan said. "I'm pleased with the way they played. But I also realize we've got six more (games) to go."

The keys were Florida's defense and hot shooting.

Vanderbilt entered as the sixth-best 3-point shooting team in the nation, but Florida held it to 20 percent (3-of-15). Vanderbilt was 1-of-6 from 3-point range in the first half and shot 38 percent from the field for the game.

In the past three games, Florida (18-4, 7-3) has allowed an average of 55 points. "I thought our defense was really good," Donovan said. "I thought we found a way to choke off the 3-point line. I thought our halfcourt defense was good, and our press was effective."

Vanderbilt committed 22 turnovers, the most Florida has forced in an SEC game this season. They led to 28 points. "We didn't do anything to affect the game," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "They did what they wanted to do, more or less, and we allowed it."

Florida took a 10-2 lead, but Vanderbilt put together a 10-4 run midway through the first half to pull within 20-18 with 7:33 left. But with the Commodores trailing 26-23 with 4:44 left, Florida went on a 10-2 run to take a 36-25 halftime lead.

Justin Hamilton's 22-foot jumper at the buzzer gave Florida a huge momentum boost entering the locker room, the players said.

"Basically, it was 2.7 seconds remaining (when I got the ball and headed down the court), and I wanted to try to hurry up and get a shot," said Hamilton who had 12 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists and was 4-of-4 from 3-point range. "It was one of those days when it left my hand, it was good."

Stallings said that late run decided the game.

"The key point in the game for us was the last 30 seconds of the first half," he said. "We got the ball with a chance to cut the lead to five or six, and then we went down 11. It was just sheer stupidity, ignorance on offense and defense."

Florida bridged the end of the first half and beginning of the second with a 16-0 run, eventually outscoring Vanderbilt 26-3 over 8:48 to take a 52-26 lead with 16:33 left. Vanderbilt (14-9, 4-6) went without a field goal from 4:44 left in the first half until Sam Howard's 3-pointer with 8:48 left in the game. Matt Freije led Vanderbilt with 10 points.

Florida shot 51.1 percent from the field (24-of-47) and 52.6 percent from 3-point range (10-of-19). The Gators also were 22-of-28 from the free-throw line but committed 20 turnovers that led to 17 points. "We need to get better taking care of the basketball," Donovan said. "Our turnovers are still way too high."

Udonis Haslem scored on 10 of his first 11 touches (including free throws) en route to 19 points.

Forward Matt Bonner scored a game-high 22 points, and Brett Nelson added 11.

Florida plays at Georgia on Tuesday with a chance to avenge an earlier home loss.

"Our goal is to finish in first place," Haslem said. "Right now, we're fortunate enough to get back to the top after falling down. We still have a lot more games to play."

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