GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Al Horford returned to Florida this season in hopes of repeating as national champions, improving his game and getting better prepared for the NBA.
He already has accomplished two of the three.
Horford scored a career-high 22 points to go along with 13 rebounds, five assists and three blocks that helped the top-ranked Gators beat Tennessee 94-78 Saturday and extend the nation’s longest winning streak to 14 games.
“Coming back definitely helped me and made a big difference,” Horford said. “I didn’t feel like I was ready for the NBA and all the road trips. I felt like another year would make me more mature.”
Horford scored 15 points in the first half as the defending national champions opened up a 27-point lead that the Volunteers couldn’t overcome, especially without Southeastern Conference leading scorer Chris Lofton.
Lofton missed his fourth consecutive game with a sprained right ankle, and Tennessee (15-8, 3-5) fell to 1-3 without him.
The shooting guard might not have been able to prevent the outcome—unless he could have mustered a way to stop Horford.
Florida’s 6-foot-10 junior center made the most of his team’s size advantage — Tennessee also opted not to double team the post—and scored in a variety of ways. He had dunks, layups, putbacks and several short jumpers. He even made most of his free throws, going 12-of-16 from the line.
“He, to me, doesn’t get enough respect,” coach Billy Donovan said. “The fact that they’ve got the Wooden Award list out and he’s not even on it is mind-boggling to me. … Al Horford is one of the best big men in the country in my opinion.
“He’s definitely made some strides. Probably the biggest stride he made is he’s using his left hand a lot better than he did a year ago and he’s really consistently making that 15-, 17-foot jump shot. So much he’s getting full of himself—he shot a 3.”
Horford missed the 3-pointer, but he didn’t do much else wrong. His best play came early in the game when he spun on a defender and dunked. He made a 17-footer the next time down the floor, then turned to the student section and shrugged his shoulders.
“Al played like a monster tonight, getting rebounds, getting putbacks, just making great post moves,” teammate Taurean Green said. “He just played a great all-around game. He plays like that, can’t nobody stop him.”
Although Horford said he’s ready to make the jump to the NBA, he added that he hadn’t thought much about the future.
“We’re just enjoying this right now and I’m enjoying this,” he said. “There’s been no talk about that. This college experience is great and we’re trying to make the most of it.”
The Gators improved to 14-0 at home this season, extended their home winning streak to 16 games and set a school record for their best start in conference play. They broke the previous 7-0 mark set in 2003.
Florida also avenged last year’s home loss to Tennessee, a game in which Joakim Noah had a tooth knocked out.
Noah also dominated down low alongside Horford, scoring 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Green added 18, and Corey Brewer and Walter Hodge finished with 12 apiece for the Gators (21-2, 8-0).
“From a size standpoint, we were so challenged to stop their guys inside,” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said.
Brewer twisted his knee with 1:01 to play, but was able to walk off the court without assistance.
“He’s fine,” Donovan said. “They don’t think there’s any need for X-rays or anything.”
Wayne Chism led the Vols with 19 points, and JuJuan Smith added 16.
Florida scored the first nine points in the game, opened up a 26-9 advantage following Horford’s jumper midway through the first half and led 50-24 at the break.
Tennessee used a pressing defense and a bevy of 3-point shots to cut into the lead in the second half. Smith and Dane Bradshaw hit consecutive 3s to make it 79-65 with about 6 minutes to play, but Horford made sure the Volunteers didn’t get any closer.
He blocked Bradshaw’s 3-point attempt the next time down the floor, made two free throws on the other end and then blocked Bradshaw’s close-range shot a few seconds later.
“We were undersized down low,” Bradshaw said. “Sometimes that can be exposed when you go up against future NBA players like Horford and Noah.”