ATLANTA (AP) -For all those who thought Florida looked vulnerable at the end of the regular season, the Gators sent an emphatic message in the Southeastern Conference tournament: The defending national champions are doing just fine.
The sixth-ranked Gators finished off three routs in three days, beating Arkansas 77-56 on Sunday to claim their third straight SEC tournament championship and perhaps lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Again, it was a devastating team effort by Florida (29-5), 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.
“This is our time of year,” Joakim Noah said.
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, Al Horford scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Noah had 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists. On the perimeter, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey each made a couple of 3-pointers. The swingman, Corey Brewer, chipped in with 9 points, five rebounds and three assists. Walter Hodge and Chris Richard combined for 17 points off the bench.
“It’s just fun to play with a bunch of guys who are your homies,” Noah said.
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 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.
Now, the Razorbacks must hope that three wins in Atlanta were enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and, perhaps, save the job of coach Stan Heath. 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.
The Gators led by as many as 28 and, fittingly, swept four of the five spots on the All-SEC tournament team.
Sonny Weems, who scored 15 points, was the only non-Florida player on the team. 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.
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 try to return to the Georgia Dome in three weeks for the Final Four.
“One more year! One more year!” the orange-and-blue faithful chanted hopefully.
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