NCAA Champs! Gators Are Last Team Standing

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana --- They began the season with a chip on their shoulders, feeling disrespected, unappreciated and unranked. The Florida Gators don't have to carry those burdens any longer. They are the last team standing, NCAA basketball champions for the first time in school history, a title they earned because they never lost sight of what is most important --- brotherly love, team chemistry, unselfishness, sacrifice and hard work.

Maybe these Gators of Coach Billy Donovan aren't the most talented team in the nation if you compare rosters top to bottom, but they are on top of the mountain today because they were willing to park egos at the door and embrace all the things that can be right. They really were good friends. They really did love each other. They really didn't care who led the team in scoring. They were willing to make the extra pass. They were willing to do all the dirty work on defense. They were willing to do whatever it takes to win.

The last of the doubters got tossed in the ditch Monday night at the RCA Dome when the Gators put on a clinic at both ends of the court, turning the mighty UCLA Bruins into just another team dismantled on the road to a title. UCLA became the fifth of the six teams the Gators played in the NCAA Tournament to lose by 15 or more points. They were outquicked, outmuscled and outhustled as Florida (33-6) rolled to a surprisingly easy 73-57 victory.

"We were ranked 75th in the whole country," said point guard Taurean Green, who only turned the ball over once as he took UCLA's guards to school. "All the talk was about Anthony (Roberson), Matt (Walsh) and David (Lee) leaving. You know, those are three great players but we still have a bunch of great players that returned. We just wanted to prove to everybody that we can play."

Oh, can the Gators ever play.

All the talk coming into Monday night's game was how UCLA would stymie the Florida offense the same way it did Memphis and LSU, holding those two teams to a combined 90 points. By the time this game was over, UCLA's defenders looked shell-shocked and bewildered, wondering where Florida's next dunk or three-pointer was coming from.

And for all the talk about UCLA's defense, it was the Florida defense that was tougher, quicker to the ball, dominating and intimidating. The Gators set a new NCAA record with 10 blocked shots with Joakim Noah, the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, rejecting six and altering another 10 by himself. It wasn't just on the inside that the Gators dominated, though. They locked down the perimeter once again, holding the Bruins to a miserable 3-17 from beyond the arc. In their six NCAA Tournament games, the Gators held opponents to 30-106 shooting from three-point land, a rotten 28.3 percent. Overall, UCLA shot 36.1 percent. In their six-game run to the title, only George Mason (41.1 percent) broke the 40 percent barrier against Florida.

"I told them before the game that this game was going to be coming down to everything that we talk about being," said Donovan, who became the second youngest coach (40 years, 10 months) to ever win an NCAA title and only the third (Dean Smith and Bobby Knight are the others) to both play in the Final Four and coach a team to the NCAA title. "It's going to come down to unselfishness, teamwork, extra pass, high assist total and then being able to defend and rebound."

Florida trailed only twice in the game --- 2-0 and 4-2 --- and the Gators took the lead for good at 9-6 when Corey Brewer knocked down a three-pointer off an inside-out look from Joakim Noah with 16:48 to go in the first half. Noah rejected Luc Mbah a Moute's layup on UCLA's ensuing possession and that began the intimidation factor. By the time the first half had come to a merciful end for the Bruins, the Gators had taken away the paint area with seven rejections, five alone by Noah.

"Maybe I got a lot of the blocks this game, but when you look at what Corey Brewer did, Humpty Dump (Lee Humphrey)… you guys look at him as a three-point shooter but hey, he as a monster on D tonight," said Noah, who had 16 points on 7-9 shooting and nine rebounds. "I think it was just a team effort. I mean, my man Horfy (Al Horford) blocked a lot of shots, too. Even sometimes when we don't get blocks we're just intimidating because we're like tree out there."

The intimidation factor was never more evident than when Ryan Hollins, UCLA's seven-foot center, air balled a shot from two feet on a play when Noah never left the floor with 2:51 remaining in the half. Hollins had suffered the indignity of having his shot blocked twice within five seconds by Noah earlier in the half. Hollins also missed a dunk because Horford came flying by and 6-8 Lorenzo Mata spent the half in never-never land after Chris Richard blocked his shot from behind.

"We heard all about UCLA and their great defense," said Richard, a 6-8 junior who contributed six points. "Well, we think we play pretty good defense, too. I think they were shocked a little bit when we came out and played them like we did."

Added Brewer: "They always talked about UCLA playing such great defense the last 12 games. We thought hey, we've been playing pretty good defense, too. How about giving us a little bit of respect?"

The Gators also got a boost off the bench in the first half from the lone senior on the team. In his final game as a Gator, the guy his teammates call "Old Man" came through with nine first half points and five of his six rebounds to help propel the Gators to a 36-25 lead at the intermission.

"This is an incredible way to end my career," said Moss. "It's crazy man. You ask for your chance and you have to make good for your chances. When you get your chance you have to get out there and play ball. It's a beautiful thing, but it isn't about me, it's about the 13 dudes with Florida on their chest and the coaching staff. Everybody did their part from Jack Berry to Al Horford. It's that moment that a team decides to believe. We've been believing all year."

Noah paid homage to Moss, a 6-9 banger who has accepted his role coming off the bench in his senior year without so much as one complaint.

"It's unbelievable how much he had to sacrifice this year," said Noah. "He deserves all the credit. Just winning this game, we play for him. He's our only senior. I just have so much respect for him as a person. I'm just so proud that he's my boy. Boss man. He's the leader of his team. I'm just proud to be his teammate. Not a lot of people can say they finished their basketball careers with a win. I'm just happy and proud to be his teammate."

The Gators were like a heavyweight boxer that senses a knockout is near when the second half began. Humphrey, who was 1-3 from the field in the first half, knocked down an open three-pointer from the left wing with 18:38 to go in the game and then another three-pointer, this one from the top of the key, one minute later and that was like burying a fist in the solar plexus of the Bruins, who called a hasty time out. UCLA got a dunk from Hollins for the Bruins' first points of the half but Brewer provided the perfect counter-punch, knocking down his second three of the game with 16:06 to expand the Florida bulge to 45-27.

"The two threes coming out at the start of halftime, one was in transition," said Humphrey. "Taurean did a good job and found me open. The second one was on a pass from Jo. We worked it inside out. That's one of the best ways to get good looks from three when you work the ball inside out."

Humphrey finished the game with 15 points, 34 for his two Final Four games. From the three-point line, the junior from Maryville, Tennessee was 10-20 including 4-8 against UCLA.

Florida stretched its lead to 20 when Horford dunked on a pass from the top of the key from Humphrey, making it 57-37 with 9:12 left in the game. At that point, the Bruins made a small run to get the game closer, closing it to 14 on consecutive three-pointers by Arron Affolo.

UCLA started pressing and trapping all over the court, but the Gators just dribbled and passed their way through the press and let Noah and Horford finish with dunks on the other end. The Gators scored on six straight dunks during the final run to the title.

Donovan gave praise to Green, who only scored two points in the game, but kept UCLA's defense completely at bay with his deft ballhandling.

"To me, the guy who orchestrated everything tonight, didn't shoot the ball particularly well, didn't make a three-pointer," said Donovan. Taurean ran our team. He could have had a big offensive night because I thought he had some pretty decent looks. There were some tough shots he took at the end of the block that we put him in a bad situation, but gosh, did he really run our team and make everybody else better.

"He made life so much easier for Horford, Noah, our front court, because we kept running middle pick and roll. Either he was throwing to people and dumping it off for a dunk or he's throwing the ball back to Joakim where he could drive down the lane."

As the clock wound down those final seconds, Green held the ball in his hands, wiggled his hips and then threw the ball high at the scoreboard, Pandemonium broke out on the floor.

Up in the stands, 6-10 Sidney Green, who was on a Final Four team at UNLV in 1977, wiped a tear from his eye and grinned.

"Nothing is better than watching your own son accomplish something like this and see his dream come true," said big Sid, who was a teammate of Donovan's for one year with the New York Knicks. "Until tonight, nothing could ever take away the hurt of 1977. The hurt's gone now."

GAME NOTES: Joining Noah on the All-Tournament team were Green, Humphrey, Brewer and Jordan Farmar of UCLA. Farmar, a sophomore, chose UCLA over Florida two years ago … Florida had four players in double figures --- Noah (16), Humphrey (15), Horford (14) and Brewer (11) … Noah led Florida with nine rebounds, while Horford and Brewer had seven each... The Gators shot 44.8 percent from the field for the game and outscored UCLA 18-9 from the three-point line... Florida's national championship is the ninth for the Southeastern Conference. Kentucky has seven and Arkansas has one … Florida's margin of victory (16 points) was the largest in the championship game since Duke beat Michigan 71-51 in 1992 … Noah's 29 blocked shots in the tournament broke the previous record of 24 set by Arizona's Loren Woods back in 2001… During Florida's 11-game winning streak to close the season, the Gators held opponents to 59.4 points per game. Arkansas scored 71 in the SEC title game, the only team to break the 7o-point barrier… Florida's margin of victory in six NCAA Tournament games was 16.

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