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At home, Gators stop the bleeding

NO. 5 FLORIDA 81, VANDERBILT 58: Two tough losses and one rough half later, a light finally clicks on.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published January 29, 2006


GAINESVILLE - When Florida found itself on the losing end of its second straight conference game Wednesday, the players were forced into self-evaluation.

Forget all the stuff you've read, forget the fans, critics and the national analysts, they told themselves. Only one thing counts.

"It's not what people think. At the end of the day, you've got to come out and play," sophomore center Joakim Noah said.

On Saturday afternoon, the Gators came to play. At least in the second half.

Trailing 38-35 at halftime, No. 5 Florida relied on its pressure defense to shut down Vanderbilt's second-half offense on its way to an 81-58 victory in front of 12,001 at the O'Connell Center.

"It was important to get this win, anywhere," said senior forward Adrian Moss, who had eight points and five rebounds in eight minutes off the bench.

The victory ended a two-game road losing streak and extended Florida's home win streak to 19, one shy of the school record.

Florida (18-2, 4-2 SEC) earned its win the old-fashioned way: a knock-down, physical game in which the Gators ultimately wore down Vanderbilt. After being outrebounded and muscled off the offensive glass the past two games, the Gators beat Vandy on the boards 35-26, including 15 offensive rebounds.

"I felt like our team learned a lot today," coach Billy Donovan said. "I think our guys understand a little bit more how hard you've got to compete, and I'm talking about physically. Our guys play with great emotion and energy, but there's also a physical side they've got to learn. They are an unfinished product, but they really try. We played aggressively, we got up and down the floor and we played our style."

Vanderbilt (12-5, 3-3) entered the game as the league's leading 3-point shooting team (50 percent in SEC games), but went 0-for-10 from 3-point range in the second half, 2-for-17 in the game. The Commodores shot 60 percent from the field in the first half, but went stone cold in the final 20 minutes, hitting just seven field goals, including two scored on goaltending calls.

"It was a tale of two halves," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We had a chance in the first half to grab control of the game and we didn't finish very well. We kind of let them off the hook a little bit. They came out and dominated the second half. They outphysicaled us inside."

Florida trailed by 10 with 5:58 left in the first half, but went on a 12-5 run in the final 3:10. Along with its uptempo offense and aggressive pressure defense, the Gators outscored the Commodores 24-12 inside the paint in the second half. The Gators took their first lead of the second half at 45-44 on a free-throw by sophomore forward Al Horford, then went on a 14-4 run and never trailed again.

Freshman guard Walter Hodge earned his first start in place of the injured Corey Brewer (sprained ankle), who on Saturday morning asked Donovan to take him out of the starting lineup because he couldn't play at full speed. Hodge had nine points and Brewer had three in 17 minutes of play. Four starters scored in double figures: Horford (16 points, 16 rebounds), junior guard Lee Humphrey (14), Noah (10) and sophomore guard Taurean Green (12). Sophomore forward DeMarre Carroll scored a team-high 18 for Vanderbilt.

"This was very important," Noah said. "From now on, every game has to be played like it's a championship. Every game. ... It feels good to get back on the winning track."