Florida And UCLA Cruise To Final

The University of Florida Gators, in their Saturday night win over George Mason, looked like a clear-cut favorite to win the national championship Monday night. But then UCLA handled LSU with incredible ease, making the Gators' "favorites" status a little precarious.

INDIANAPOLIS – All of us who seemed convinced that the University of Florida's Gators were the best of the last four NCAA Division I basketball teams still suiting up had that notion reinforced during the first Final Four semifinal Saturday night in the RCA Dome.


Coach Billy Donovan's team, facing a George Mason club that startled (and that's probably not too strong a verb) those who follow the sport by reeling off wins over Michigan State, North Carolina, Wichita State and Connecticut to see its season extended into April, cruised to a 73-58 victory in front of 43,822.


Each dimension of what, everyone seemed to be in agreement upon, was the most multi-dimensional of the Final Four teams, was on display against the Patriots.


Post players Joakim Noah and Al Horford dominated their counterparts, Will Thomas and Jai Lewis.


And perimeter players Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey, in combining for 12 buckets behind the arc, were always able to free themselves from their defenders.


It would be easy to surmise that the outcome of the first game was decided by the Gators' 16-4 run over the first six and a half minutes of the second half.


The reality of it is, however, that Florida had things well in hand at intermission, despite hanging on to only a five-point (31-26) advantage.


How is that?


The Gators had to feel pretty good about that five-point edge in that they hit just 34 percent of field goal attempts while committing eight turnovers in the first half.


How was that possible?


Well, the Patriots shot only 38 percent themselves but that figure included misses on all four of their attempts behind the arc.


The Gators? They were six of 15. In fact, they were better in back of the line that they were in front of it (five of 17).


Florida needed just six and a half minutes to start the second half to all but screech the brakes on that George Mason bandwagon, outscoring the Patriots 16-4. Humphrey (who has missed four of five from behind the arc in the first half) scored the first nine of those on deep jumpers.


Noah came into Saturday night's game having played as well as anyone in the tournament.


And, despite committing three turnovers via traveling calls, he turned in a solid effort for the Gators with 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots.


But he wasn't the best post player on his team Saturday.


That honor, despite his scoring just six points, went to Horford,  who led the domination under the backcourts (the Gators out-rebounded the Patriots, 40-27) by grabbing 13 rebounds. He also had a game high four assists while constantly whipping passes to jump shooters when George Mason tried to send a double-team his way.


Yes, the Gators dispatched with the "feel-good story" of the tournament in such systematic fashion that it appeared as if, be it Southeastern Conference foe LSU or Pacific 10 Conference champion UCLA that came out on top in the second game, they'd be the solid choice to cut down nets late Monday night.


And then the Bruins came out and sliced, diced and dispensed with the Tigers' offense in a fashion than even the most hard-core of UCLA followers wouldn't have dared fantasize.


Or would they?


After all, they watch their club, seven nights before, limit the Memphis Tigers – which dropped 88 points on the Bruins in mid November – to 45 points in the Oakland regional final.


That's right. Four-five.


Now, Coach Ben Howland's team isn't the most dynamic of offensive units. After all, the Bruins fell 30 points short in Oakland of the 80 they'd rung up in that first loss to Memphis.


But UCLA was more than good enough offensively Saturday (at least over the first 20 minutes, when the Bruins hit 14 of 24 shots) to suck out any of the suspense very early on against the Tigers.


With freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (12 points and six rebounds) easily the most impressive frontcourt player on the floor – yeah, who would have projected that beforehand? – the Bruins held a 39-24 advantage at intermission.


How good is the brand of man-to-man defense that UCLA has been playing during a winning streak that now stands at 12? So good, in fact, that a 15-point advantage for the Bruins might as well be 30, for all the likelihood it is that they're going to surrender that lead.


Don't be misled by the final score (59-45). The 50-27 advantage the Bruins held after Jordan Farmar's 17-footer with 15:34 remaining is a much truer read on UCLA's dominance of the team that beat Duke and Texas in the Atlanta regional.


So were those of who believed Florida to be the best of the teams playing on the final weekend of the season correct?


The Gators are going to have to convince us all over again Monday night.


Inducted into the USBWA Hall of Fame last April, Frank Burlison is Scout.com's national basketball expert and is also a columnist for the Long Beach (Calif.) Press-Telegram. He can be reached at frank.burlison@presstelegram.com. Read more of Burlison's pieces at www.frankhoops.com

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