At 7:15 when Zacharie and Yannick Noah arrived at the O'Connell Center Florida was leading Georgia, 10-8, and Joakim had already scored four points at the foul line. They hardly settled in their seats when Joakim basically took over the game. Over the next couple of hours, they watched Joakim Noah play the most dominating game of his Florida basketball career. He finished the night with 37 points and 11 rebounds, leading the Gators to a 77-66 Southeastern Conference win over Georgia before a crowd of 11,578.
The 37 points were the most scored by a Gator since Vernon Delancey scored 37 against Florida Southern back in 1980. Noah set a school record by making 19 free throws and he tied Reggie Hannah for most free throws in a game. Hannah attempted 22 against Iowa State in 1979.
The win broke a three-game losing streak in the SEC for the Gators and boosted their record to 23-6, 9-6 in the SEC. The Gators remain tied with Kentucky, an 80-78 winner over Tennessee in Knoxville Wendesday night, for second place in the SEC's Eastern Division. The Gators will play Kentucky in Lexington Sunday afternoon with the winner earning the all-important first-round bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament which will be played next week in Nashville.
Noah's performance came on a night when the Gators needed a boost. Al Horford suffered a hip pointer in the first half and required an injection just to continue playing so he was far from dominant on the inside, scoring just eight points and pulling down three rebounds. Chris Richard came off the bench to help the Gators with strong play on the boards, but he was in foul trouble and could only offer two points of inside help. It was senior night for Adrian Moss, who got two points on a tip-in and six rebounds.
That put the inside scoring burden on Noah and the 6-11 sophomore came through with the greatest game of his Florida career. Having his grandfather there was extra incentive.
"I don't know if I could play harder because I think I always play hard," said Noah. "You feel like you're flowing when you are out there. When your family is out there, it's just extra inspiration."
Zacharie Noah was a professional soccer player who came to France from his native Cameroon. He was good enough to play for the 1961 French Cup champions. His son, Yannick, Joakim's dad, remains one of France's greatest sports heroes, the winner of the French Open in 1983 singles title and the doubles title at the French Open in 1984. Yannick saw Joakim play twice this year (Embry-Riddle in an exhibition game at the O-Dome and at Miami) but this was a first for Zacharie.
"My grandfather had never seen me play before and he came all the way from West Africa, Cameroon," said Joakim. "I'm just so happy that he was able to see me play my last home game as a sophomore and play well and win, too. It probably would have been very depressing if we had lost this game."
Florida didn't lose because Noah was unstoppable in the paint. He hit 9-14 from the field, scoring on a variety of moves and dunks, but it was his ability to get to the foul line that created the difference in the game. Florida went 27-32 from the foul line for the game while Georgia managed just 10-16.
"He carried our team offensively, no question," said Donovan. "The thing that he did a great job of when you look at his points and that's 37 and the thing that's so shocking about his 37 is he only took 14 shots. He got to the free throw line so often so much tonight and that was the difference. He shot the ball and made some post moves to shoot a high percentage from the field but the thing that's so impressive is he got to the free throw line 22 times."
Noah scored 18 first half points, 12 from the foul line. He hit his first 12 free throws before finally missing one with 56.6 seconds in the half. Florida led by as many as 12 points in the first half (35-23) but Georgia closed on a 5-1 mini-run to cut Florida's lead to 36-28 at the half.
The Gators ran the lead back to 11 in the second half, going ahead 45-34 on a pair of foul shots by Noah with 15:30 remaining. The Gators couldn't build on the lead because over the next three minutes, the Gators were whistled for five fouls. Georgia made the most of its offensive opportunities, chipping away to cut the Florida margin to four, 48-44, on a Channing Toney jumper with 12:33 remaining.
Florida responded with a 12-3 run that was fueled by seven points by Noah to push the lead to 60-48 but again Georgia wouldn't go away. Mike Mercer, who led the Bulldogs with 16 points, led a surge that got Georgia back to within four (67-63) with 3:14 remaining in the game.
That was as close as Georgia would come, however. Florida finished the night on a 10-3 run, scoring on five of six free throws, a tip in by Richard and a critical three-pointer by Taurean Green.
The Gators rebounded from three consecutive games in which they had been outrebounded and outplayed at the three-point line. Led by Noah, the Gators pounded the boards for a 42-29 margin, one of their best efforts of the season in conference play. The Gators gave up 26 three-pointers in losses to Arkansas, Tennessee and Alabama, but they forced Georgia into a 4-21 night from beyond the arc Wednesday.
"If you want to look back and go to a key why we lost three games in a row check the three-point field goals made and the three-point field goal percentage and look at our field goal percentage defensively and that's why we lost," said Donovan. "We got stops. They shot 19 percent from the three-point line and they shot below 40 percent from the field."
On the offensive end, there was no question that Noah was the difference maker. Brewer scored 13 points and he was the only Gator other than Noah in double figures.
"The difference for us was Joakim Noah," said Donovan. "He got himself fouled and he got himself to the free throw line."
Noah was obviously pleased that he performed so well with his father and grandfather in attendance. Noah didn't play all that much down the stretch last season when the Gators marched to the SEC Tournament championship and it was his grandfather that provided him with the motivation to work harder to elevate his game. Noah flew to Cameroon in June to spend a couple of weeks with Zacharie and it was exactly what he needed.
"My freshman year it was tough on me not to play that much," he said. "Even though I knew I needed to get better pretty fast in the summertime, I felt like going back to Africa was mentally something I needed to do for a couple of weeks. I feel like Africa is where my piece of mind comes from. Africa definitely provided me with peace of mind."
Zacharie Noah told Joakim to "be strong and keep working hard." He also prayed for his grandson and offered some sacrifices.
"You don't know about the sacrifices, do you?" Joakim asked. "You better ask him about them."
Whether it was the prayers, the sacrifices or just getting his head on straight, it was a different Joakim Noah that came back to Gainesville ready to work. He put in the extra hours and he remains intense and fully focused on improving his game and helping to make the Gators a better team. Donovan says that Noah has made the greatest leap from freshman to sophomore year of anyone he's ever coached.
"If you would have told me a year ago that our last home game Joakim Noah's going to score 37 points I would have laughed," said Donovan. "You just never know. The thing about Jo that's been great is that he's as passionate a player as I have ever coached and he is so focused and so intense. He's just so energized in everything he does. He is somebody who is so passionate and so intense and you can see it on his face all the time.
"He's by far the biggest jump [from freshman to sophomore year] I've had since I've been here. The thing about him is that he's impacting winning and that's the sign of a good player that's making growth and strides when he's impacting winning."
Donovan said the next leap for Noah is to put the glory of a 37-point night behind him and become totally focused on what's next. In this case, what's next is Kentucky at Rupp Arena Sunday afternoon.
"It's about winning," Noah said. "That's the best feeling right now … getting Ws. It's late in the season and I still feel like we played tentative but it's good to be back in the winning column and then we have a big game on Sunday. After Sunday, it's do or die."