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March 10, 2007
ATLANTA -They stayed in school because there were more championships to be won. Now, Florida's juniors are one victory away from a three-peat at the Southeastern Conference tournament.Box score
Florida (28-5) jumped out to a quick 11-point lead and was never seriously challenged by the Rebels (20-12), who likely cost themselves a chance to slip into the NCAA field.
After winning the national championship last season, Gator stars Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah were projected as first-round NBA draft picks. Instead, they defied expectations by returning together for their junior season.
"Here's a group of kids that chose the University of Florida, one another, playing with each other, and happiness over all the materialistic things that are out there," coach Billy Donovan said. "To me, it's an unbelievable story. Personally, I don't think it's been told enough."
Florida has won its first two games in the tournament by an average of 19 points to reach its fourth straight SEC final. The Gators won the last two championships and have a chance to be the first team since Kentucky in 1997-99 to win three straight tournament titles.
"I think we play our best basketball when tournament season starts," Brewer said.
Florida advanced to play Arkansas in Sunday's championship game. The Razorbacks knocked off Mississippi State 81-72 in the other semifinal.
Ole Miss shot just 32 percent from the field (21-of-66). Clarence Sanders was the Rebels' lone player in double figures with 21 points.
Taurean Green added 14 points for Florida, which buried the Rebels by going 10-of-24 from beyond the 3-point arc. Humphrey was especially accurate, making 5-of-8 outside the stripe. Brewer went 3-of-7 from long range, which opened up the rest of his versatile game.
"When I'm making my outside shots, teams have to pressure me and I can drive to the basket," Brewer said.
As usual, everyone chipped in for the Gators. Horford had 9 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks. Noah grabbed 12 rebounds, scored 8 points and swatted away three shots.
After blowing out Georgia in the quarterfinals with the first 17 points of the game, Florida got off to another quick start. Brewer and Green connected from 3-point range and Al Horford scored on the inside to make it 13-2 with the game barely five minutes old.
"We're a team, and I think that's what they've thrived on, that's what they've bought into, that's what they think their identity is, and that's the way they enjoy playing," Donovan said.
Ole Miss called a quick timeout and pulled itself together, making a game of it by late in the first half despite abysmal shooting. The Rebels whittled Florida's lead to 30-22 and had the ball with less than two minutes remaining, but the Gators needed no time at all to restore a comfortable margin.
Humphrey connected on his third 3-pointer of the half, Green made a couple of free throws and Walter Hodge burst to the basket for a layin after an Ole Miss turnover, sending Florida to the locker room with its biggest lead to that point, 37-22.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy actually came up with a new word - "spurtability" - to describe Florida's quick strikes.
"Their athleticism in the open floor is as good as we've faced all year," he said. "They ran out, got in the open floor and finished the half on a very strong note. It certainly took a little wind out of our sails, and built what ended up being an insurmountable lead."
A similar run in the second half finished off the Rebels. After Sanders missed a jumper that could have closed the gap to single digits, Brewer and Humphrey swished 3s, then Green drove for a layup that capped a 13-2 run with 9 1/2 minutes to go.
That gave Florida a 62-41 lead and the Gators stretched the margin as high as 25 points before letting up at the end.
Even with 20 wins, Ole Miss doesn't expect to hear its name called when the NCAA field is announced. The Rebels are resigned to being in the National Invitation Tournament.
"I'm a realist," Kennery said. "We'll play in a tournament, but it won't be the four-letter one."
Clearly, the Gators have gotten past that little hiccup at the end of February, when they lost three of four games. Now, they're a legitimate contender for a No. 1 seed.
"We went through a tough stretch," Humphrey said. "We weren't executing on offense and defense. But we're starting to put it together."
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