GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP)—Joakim Noah was thumping his chest, screaming at the top of lungs and pumping up teammates with his hustle and tenacious defense.
Noah was back to his usual self—and so was Florida.
Noah broke out of a slump with 17 points and 10 rebounds, played with the kind of passion missing in recent games and helped the fifth-ranked Gators rebound from consecutive losses and make history with an 85-72 victory against Kentucky on Sunday.
Florida became the first Southeastern Conference team to win six in a row against the Wildcats. Only Notre Dame has won seven straight against the storied program.
“We’ve come a long way,” said center Al Horford, who added 14 points and 10 boards. “We’re all about setting records, and that’s what we did.”
It started with Noah, the 6-foot-10 son of tennis star Yannick Noah.
Noah—who had his father, mother, two sisters and brother on hand for what might have been his last home game—had scored 18 points the last three games and was admittedly playing without his usual energy. He had plenty of it against the “Kitty Cats,” the nickname Noah playfully gave Kentucky (20-10, 9-7) this week.
“I feel like if you can deal with all the good that we’ve gone through, you have to know how to deal with some bad,” Noah said. “We knew that it wasn’t the end of the world, but I feel like to me it’s like crazy how people can just be on your side and all of a sudden, a couple days later, the same people … just trash you. I’ve never experienced that before. I realize now that I can’t let those people affect who I am.”
The Gators (26-5, 13-3) got behind early again and were tied at halftime, but they used a 13-2 run to open the second half and pulled away down the stretch to finish the season unbeaten at home (18-0).
Noah, much like last year’s run through the NCAA tournament, was the catalyst. He had a left-handed jam in the second-half spurt, then threw down consecutive dunks that pushed the lead to 62-51 with about 10 minutes to play. He added seven straight points in the closing minutes that sealed the victory.
Coach Billy Donovan said no one really knows what kind of pressure Noah has played under this season, from getting harassed by fans on the road to being the media focal point to getting double- and triple-teamed nearly every time he touches the ball.
“It’s amazing to me how everybody thinks they’ve got everything figured out. They know Joakim Noah. They know what’s wrong. And they have no clue what they’re talking about,” Donovan said. “Nobody does.
“They all want to pump up Joakim Noah, and when he doesn’t play well, tear the kid down. Unfortunately, that’s the way of the world. I think Jo has finally realized, ‘I’ve got to play up to the expectation of my coaches and my teammates and do the very best I can.’ It was good to see him get back to that energy level that he’s had.”
Noah’s teammates seemed to feed off his excitement.
Taurean Green also broke out of a shooting slump with 17 points. Green had hit 6 of 32 shots in the last four games—Florida lost three of those—but was 6-of-11 Sunday. He added five assists.
Lee Humphrey, one of two scholarship seniors honored before their final home game, finished with 11 points. Walter Hodge was 5-of-5 from the field and had 15 points.
“That’s the way we need to play,” Green said. “We need to play with that emotion and passion. As long as we play with that and be smart with the ball and play defense we’ll be fine.”
Bobby Perry led Kentucky with 20 points, but 16 of them came in the first half. Perry carried the Wildcats in the opening 20 minutes, but Florida clamped down on him after the break, and no one else stepped up to make shots for the Wildcats.
Everybody made shots for the Gators, who finished 32-of-50 from the field and had a 35-23 rebounding advantage.
“We gave up a lot of open looks in the first half,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “We thought we addressed it at halftime, but obviously we didn’t because they shot better in the second half.”
It was just what the defending national champions needed after poor performances in back-to-back losses at LSU and Tennessee. Now, the Gators have some much-needed momentum heading into the postseason.
And Noah might be back on track.
“We did a good job of playing our style,” Humphrey said. “We had the ball hopping and a bunch of guys scoring, which is the way we like to play.”