USA Pays Price For Noah's Memories

JACKSONVILLE --- Joakim Noah sat on the bench last year when the Florida Gators faced Ohio University in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, waiting for a call to get in the game that never came from Coach Billy Donovan. He wanted to play so desperately but Donovan trusted his senior, David Lee, not the eager to play freshman. Florida won the game and that was good but Noah never played and his heart broke into a thousand pieces.

The memory of the 2005 tournament is never far from Noah these days. It is his motivation for arriving early to practice and the driving force that makes him stay long after everyone else is gone to take 50 more free throws or run extra sprints the length of the practice floor. He waited last year. He watched. Others played when he wanted to because they were better than he was, because they had worked harder than he had. Maybe that's why he played with such passion and determination Thursday afternoon in Florida's first round game in the NCAA Tournament. He ran the floor like a gazelle, flew through the air like one of the Wallendas and blocked shots like a man defending his home from invaders.

On this day Joakim Noah was Florida's version of the truth and the truth had been set free. Noah filled up the box score with 16 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, five blocked shots and three steals to lead the Gators to a 76-50 win over South Alabama, advancing the tenth-ranked and third-seeded Gators (28-6) to a Saturday showdown with Wisconsin-Milwaukee (22-8), once again playing the role of Cinderella. The number 11 seed Panthers, who advanced to last year's Sweet Sixteen, did a first round number on sixth-seeded Oklahoma of the Big 12 Conference, 82-74.

"This is the same kid that was in my hotel room almost in tears because for the first time in his life he wasn't getting really an opportunity to play like he wanted to," said Donovan. Donovan offered a combination of compassion and tough love that night, letting Noah know that his time would come but warning him to be prepared when opportunity finally stared him in the face.

"I told him don't make the mistake of being disappointed that you're not getting the opportunity to play and then not come back next year ready to go," said Donovan.

Noah listened. He trusted. He went to work, determined that no one would outwork him and that Billy Donovan would never again look down the bench and fail to call his name.

"As a competitor you want to be out there," said the 6-11 sophomore center. "It was hard to accept that even though I knew that when David left my role would change. It wasn't all of a sudden I started working on my game. It was all year long … before practice, maybe a half hour or 45 minutes before practice, in individual drills with Coach Grant.

"As soon as the summertime came, I knew I had to elevate and it wasn't just about getting stronger. I had to try to do more than everybody else --- running extra miles, lifting a little bit extra, taking jumpers at night … just doing whatever it takes to help the team. These are my guys. We are like family out there and I can't let my teammates down."

Thursday he made his presence felt in the first half mostly on the defensive end. He blocked three shots in the first eight minutes and that pretty much intimidated South Alabama's smaller Jaguars, forcing them to try to beat the Gators on the perimeter the rest of the way. On the offensive end, he punctuated Florida's 31-25 lead with a pair of spectacular dunks, the first a down the lane thunder jam off a scoop pass from Chris Richard with 6:52 remaining and the second with 2:07 left when he outsprinted the Jaguars down the floor for a resounding finish on a fast break that began with an Al Horford steal.

In the second half he was everywhere, making steals, blocking a shot, flipping crisp passes to open teammates on the perimeter. Sharpshooting Lee Humphrey benefited from three of those passes by knocking down three-pointers. Humphrey roamed the perimeter, stepping into creases every time the Jaguars tried to double down on Noah or Horford. Florida's alert big guys whipped the ball out to their equalizer who finished the game with 20 points, hitting 6-8 from three-point range. Noah and Horford combined for 12 of Florida's 21 assists.

"I felt good shooting the ball and the team did a good job of moving the ball around," said Humphrey. "I got a couple of shots on the fast break and a few times on our inside-out play. "

Florida hit only 12-30 from the field in the first half and half those shots were taken from the three-point line. Donovan wasn't happy that the Gators were taking the three without first getting the ball inside to the big guys. That was his point of emphasis at the half.

"In the second half we did a good job of getting the ball inside and our big guys did a good job of getting it outside to me, Corey (Brewer) and Lee (Humphrey) and we knocked down our shots," said point guard Taurean Green.

Florida scored nine of its first 13 points in the second half from beyond the arc, but each time the shot came after the big guys kicked it back outside. Humphrey hit a three off a pass from Noah. Green got a three off a pass from reserve guard Walter Hodge who took a pass in the corner from Horford and then found Green on the wing. Humphrey converted another Noah pass for a three with 13:32 left that put the Gators ahead, 44-33.

The perimeter game opened the middle where Horford and Noah were unstoppable as they scored Florida's next eight points to push the Gators out front 52-36 with 9:23 remaining. From there the Gators were on cruise control, picking apart the South Alabama defense outside and inside on their way to an easy win.

Like Noah, Horford showed his versatility with an all-around game. He had 12 of his 14 points in the second half, including four on a couple of mid-range jumpers. He grabbed 13 rebounds to go with five assists and a steal.

Brewer added 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Florida shot 49.2 percent from the field on 29-59 shoo ting and the Gators were 10-25 from the three-point line, 5-10 in the second half. Florida outrebounded the Jaguars 39-31. South Alabama shot 34.5 percent (19-55) from the field.

For Noah, winning was made sweeter by the fact his father, Yannick, and his grandfather, Zacharie, were able to watch the game back in Paris.

"They watched the game back in France," he said. "They went to some TV network building and they let them see the game."

Yannick and Zacharie will be watching Saturday when the Gators take on Milwaukee at 3:25 with the winner advancing to the Sweet 16.

"It's all about winning now," said Noah. "You win and you move on and that's what we're doing."

(Photos copyright GETTY IMAGES)

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