NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Billy Donovan admits he had some doubts when Florida was picked to win the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division before the season.
The 14th-ranked Gators and their three seniors erased any questions about their potential and showed just how far they've come by beating No. 21 Vanderbilt 86-76 on Saturday night. The win clinched the third outright regular-season SEC championship for Florida and the first since the 2007 team of future NBA stars won the national championship.
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"I was cautiously optimistic because I didn't know if we could take some of the steps we've taken this year because we haven't shown that," Donovan said. "And now we've got to be able to put this behind us and move on to the next thing."
The next thing is the SEC tournament, where the Gators own a first-round bye.
Kenny Boynton scored 17 points, and seniors Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin each scored 13 points and made key plays down the stretch against Vanderbilt to help the Gators (24-6, 13-3) set a school record for conference wins.
"We don't have three players going in the lottery this year, so it was a totally different team," Donovan said. "This has been really, really as rewarding as any team I've had to coach because of where they've come from, not only from November and December, but where Chandler and Alex and Vern have come from two or three years ago."
He said those players were immature with no concept of how to become winners when they first got to Florida. In Donovan's 500th game with the Gators, their maturity took over with the game on the line.
Florida pulled away after a technical foul on Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings midway through the second half. That wiped out a potential tie for the Commodores (21-9, 9-7) and gave the Gators a six-point swing.
The loss knocked Vanderbilt out of position for a first-round bye in next week's SEC tournament. The Commodores must now hope that No. 20 Kentucky beats Tennessee on Sunday to help them remain the Eastern Division's No. 3 seed. Vanderbilt, which was led by John Jenkins' 22 points, is 1-11 in season finales under Stallings.
"They played better in every facet than we did, and that's disappointing," Stallings said. "They've just gotten a lot better offensively since the first time we played them. They just sort of took turns and you've got to give them credit. They went at us and they went at us better than we went at them."
The Commodores had wiped away a 14-point deficit behind a spirited 16-6 run and strong second-half play from Jenkins and Rod Odom, and seemed set to tie the game with 9:19 left. Jenkins appeared to make a layup and draw a blocking foul on Parsons. But a second referee simultaneously called charging on Jenkins and before the officials could confer, Stallings walked about 12 feet onto the court and put his hand on his hips, indicating to the official that his crewmate had called a blocking foul.
The official called a technical foul on Stallings, and Boynton made both shots. Instead of a 56-all tie had Jenkins made his foul shot, the Commodores were down 58-53. The Gators inbounded the ball and Tyus hit a layup to make it 60-53.
Boynton then hit a 3-pointer a minute later to make it 65-54 with 8:05 left and Vanderbilt never seriously threatened again.
"I thought that was a turning point certainly, and for the life of me I didn't think it was a very good call," Stallings said. "I'll have to go back and look at the film to see if I was right or not."
Parsons thought the referees got the call right and used the play as an example of how committed the players are to the team concept. There are no high draft picks on this team, just winners.
"That's just us making winning plays," Parsons said. "Those are things you can't be taught. Just put your body in the play and making sacrifices for the team."
It was a whiplash-like momentum shift for the Commodores, one of two in the game, both involving Parsons. They started the first half hot behind Festus Ezeli's nine points in the first 4:59.
The Commodores looked as though they might be pulling away when Brad Tinsley drove the lane and threw down a big dunk over the much taller Parsons to give Vanderbilt its biggest lead with 6:45 left in the first half. The sellout crowd leapt to its feet, but that only seemed to inspire the Gators.
Tinsley's dunk ended a 10-2 run that gave Vanderbilt a 25-18 lead, and Florida answered with a 16-2 spurt to wrest the lead from the Commodores and finished the half by outscoring Vanderbilt 20-12 on the way to a 38-30 lead. It was Vanderbilt's largest halftime deficit at home this season.
"I think that's why they're the league champion, because they understand how to deal with that," Stallings said. "Big deal, a guy dunked. It counts as two points. They've seen that before. Some teams would let that affect them. Their team doesn't. It's why they've been good on the road. It's why they've won close games. They've got poise under pressure."
The Gators shook off the play at the time, but Chandler expects to hear a lot about it when the party gets rolling in Gainesville.
"Please don't report on Tinsley's dunk," Parsons joked. "I'll see enough of it on SportsCenter."