Gators To The Final Four; Believe It!

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota --- Take a moment. Pinch yourself. Think back to November, back when this magical mystery tour that is Florida's basketball season began. Did you believe then? Be honest. You know you didn't believe then and you know you were living large in doubt city back in February when the Gators lost three games in a row. Admit it. It's okay. It's part of the maturing process to say "I was wrong."

Now that you've got that out of the way, pinch yourself again. You're a believer now, aren't you? You've been converted just like everyone else. One by one, game by game, these all-too-young (four sophomores in the starting lineup) and ever-so-inexperienced (only two starters back from last year, none of which averaged double figures) Gators of Coach Billy Donovan have made believers out of all of us and now they're not only going to Indianapolis to play in the Final Four, but chances are, they'll be the team favored to come home with the big trophy.

The Gators converted the last band of disbelievers Sunday afternoon. That's when they took apart Villanova, the final number one seed remaining in the NCAA Tournament, 75-62, in the Minneapolis Regional championship before 21,613 at the Metrodome. With the win, the Gators (31-6) advanced to their second Final Four in six seasons. Ironically, the last time the Gators went to Final Four (2000), it was to Indianapolis.

The Gators got to the Final Four by sticking to a defensive game plan that took away the three-point line and by exposing Villanova's four-guard lineup to the offensive reality of 6-11 Joakim Noah and 6-9 Al Horford on the inside.

The plan was actually quite simple --- take away the three-point line and force the Wildcats to take tough two-point shots. The Wildcats went 4-23 from the three-point line, a pitiful 17.4 percent. The Wildcats weren't much better from inside the arc. They hit 14-50 on their two-point attempts which helped raise their final percentage to an awful 24.7 percent.

"Every shot was contested," said Villanova senior guard Allen Ray, who was averaging more than 18 points per game. "There were very few real open looks. They did a great job of contesting our shots and making sure we took tough shots."

Ray scored 11 points. He was 5-19 from the field, 1-7 from the three-point line. When he finally knocked down his first three-pointer, only 1:44 remained in the game and Villanova was too far out to save the Big East Conference from an embarrassing 0-2 day in regional finals. Earlier in the day, George Mason, Florida's opponent next Saturday in the semifinals in Indianapolis, pulled one of the greatest shockers in NCAA Tournament history by knocking off number one seed Connecticut, the team that everyone figured would cut down the nets in April back when the season began back in November --- back when the Gators were picked number 75 in the nation by one prominent publication.

Ray's backcourt buddy, Randy Foye, did score 25 points but he was only 7-19 from the field and 2-9 from the three-point line. Foye's total was inflated by frequent trips to the foul line where he went 9-10.

"They did a good job of finding our shooters, defending the three-point line and every time we took a shot, they made sure it was a contested shot," said Foye.

Keeping Foye and Ray from getting hot from three-point line was essential to Florida's strategy.

"We thought Foye and Ray's strengths were shooting the three-pointer and we just wanted them to take tough twos and take away the three-pointers," said Florida guard Lee Humphrey."

Another part of the defensive game plan was to take Villanova point guard Kelly Lowry out of the game. The Gators did that with a plan all too similar to the one they used to beat Kentucky twice during the regular season. They backed off and dared Lowry to beat them outside.

"We thought Lowry's strength was taking it to the basket and we thought and we thought the best way to play him was to back off a little bit and try to contain him off the dribble," said Humphrey.

Lowry finished the game with three points. He hit only one of nine shots and handed out only one assist. When he tried to get in the lane, he either got his shot blocked or altered by Noah and Horford.

Florida's two big guys blocked seven shots (Noah five, Horford two) and they altered at least 10 others.

"Joakim Noah only had three blocked shots at halftime but I think he might have changed five or six shots," said Villanova Coach Jay Wright.

Florida's offensive game plan was to play the game inside-out. In other words, establish the presence in the low blocks to open up the perimeter for the outside shooting of Taurean Green and Humphrey.

The inside part of the game worked to perfection. Noah finished the game with 21 points and Horford scored 12. The outside game wasn't working so well because the Gators hit only 4-17 from the three-point line, but on this night, the outside game wasn't so important because Florida was so dominating on the inside.

Florida's first possession of the game was pretty much an announcement of things to come. Point guard Taurean Green dribbled Lowry into a pick on the game's first possession, took two more dribbles and then got the ball to Horford, who sealed Will Sheridan on his hip and scored on a layup just 17 seconds into the game. Horford and Noah scored the first 13 points for the Gators and it was evident that Villanova's four-guard lineup couldn't handle the Gators on the defensive end.

By the time the Wildcats went to a more conventional lineup of at least two big men and only three guards, Florida had a 11-point lead at 27-16 with 10:04 remaining in the half. At that point Villanova brought in 6-9 Jason Fraser to play alongside the 6-8 Sheridan. The big guys along with Florida's first half foul trouble --- Corey Brewer was on the bench the final 12:28 of the half with two fouls --- helped the Wildcats battle their way back to a five-point deficit (35-30) by halftime.

"We were up by five and they had 16 offensive rebounds and we had turned it over 10 times," said Donovan. "That's is generally a disaster for a very, very poor half but because we defended the three-point line, that gave us an opportunity."

At the half, the Wildcats were just 2-9 from the three-point line and only 8-38 from the field. Villanova was 12-13 from the foul line, however, and they scored the final seven points of the half on free throws.

"I thought as poorly as we shot the ball, we couldn't shoot it that poorly in the second half," said Wright.

But they did. Florida's defense smothered everything beyond the arc and made all the two-point shots contested while on the offensive end, the Gators withstood a mini-run by the Wildcats that got it down to a three-point game but that was as close as they could get. A three-pointer that would have tied the game at 45 by Mike Nardi rimmed out with 10:30 remaining and from there, it was all-Florida all the way.

Down the stretch, the Gators kept going to Noah and the tournament's Most Outstanding Player (Horford and Green were also named All-Tournament) delivered. Villanova couldn't stop him so the Wildcats fouled him and that was disastrous. Noah was 3-3 from the line in the first half, 10-12 in the second.

When the clock mercifully reached zero, the Gators celebrated jumping over their latest hurdle. Noah sang songs, danced, held babies and posed for pictures but once the floor was cleared, he put things back into perspective.

"The Gator boys are hot right now," said Noah. "We're very happy to be in the Final Four right now and just taking it possession by possession, game by game and hopefully we get a nice little ring in Indianapolis."

Photos copyright AP PHOTO and GETTY IMAGES.

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