COUNTDOWN: Gators Win NCAA Tournament

On March 1, the Florida basketball team was at a crossroads. A tremendous start (17-0, 3-0 SEC) that had given so much cause for hope had given way to wide spread doubt. Oh sure, the Gators were in great shape for an eighth straight NCAA bid with a 22-6 record, but they were just 8-6 in the SEC having lost six of their last 11 games.

(Tenth in a series of ten stories)

The Gators were coming off a loss at Alabama, their third straight and had fallen into a tie for second in the SEC East. The situation wasn't desperate but something needed to happen to shake things up.

It may not have been a must win for the Gators that night when they hosted the Georgia Bulldogs, but it was the next best thing. A loss would further erode Florida's confidence with just one games remaining in the regular season (at Kentucky).

Joakim Noah knew what this game was all about and went out and put on a show. The ever-improving sophomore big man scored 37 points, the most anyone had put on the board under Billy Donovan. Not only that, but he fouled out half the Georgia roster, getting to the free throw line an incredible 22 times (making 19). Corey Brewer was the only other Gator in double figures, marking just the second time all season the balanced Gator squad had just two guys in that category. Florida had a crucial 77-66 win but little did any of us know that this team had just begin the most important eleven-game winning streak in school history.

SEC Tournament Title Played a Role

I'm no fan of conference tournaments in any sport. I feel that they really serve no purpose other than to raise money. They also can alter the NCAA invitation picture by rewarding the wrong thing --- a great weekend --- at the expense of the right thing, a solid season. That said the Gators SEC Tournament title really served a useful purpose for the Gators' eventual NCAA title run.

Florida wrapped up the chance to play in Jacksonville with its opening win over Arkansas and followed that with an impressive statement of its tournament potential with a 16-point win over LSU. The tournament final was interesting in that it was played in slow motion. Florida finally beat South Carolina after two regular season losses, 49-47, despite 18 turnovers, and it was off to the NCAA Tournament with a five-game winning streak and #10 ranking.

Many Looked For a Decent Run

Despite not advancing out of the second round of the "Big Dance" for five years it was hard to find anyone who didn't expect the Gators to reach the Sweet 16 once the tournament bracket was set. Florida had a great draw and looked sure to win at least two games. I don't know about you, but I picked the Gators to fall to Villanova in the regional final.

John Pelphrey's South Alabama Jaguars competed hard for 20 minutes, but were blown out in a 45-25 second half as Florida won its opener 76-50. Lee Humphrey knocked down six "treys" and led the way with 20 points while Al Horford authored a double-double and Noah blocked five shots.

In round two, Bruce Pearl's old team, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, concerned a lot of people. After all, they reached the Sweet 16 last year, had just beaten Oklahoma and had nothing to lose. Plus there was the fact that Pearl's style beat Florida twice in the regular seasons and there was that five-year albatross hanging around the program's collective neck.

No problem. It was Corey Brewer's turn to stand out and he did so to the tune of 23 points. Noah and Horford combined for 30 more and Taurean Green dished out six assists. The Gators also got nice play off the bench from Adrian Moss and Chris Richard who combined for eleven points and 13 rebounds.

Off To the Sweet 16

The Gators reached the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the fifth time in school history and the third under Donovan. Georgetown was a tough match up, one of those "style" games where Florida would role if it could establish a fast-paced game but would be in a war if the game was at Georgetown's tempo. The Hoyas won the tempo battle and it was a close, physical methodical game all night. Brewer made an amazing, acrobatic shot in the final minute and that three-point play was the key in a 57-53 win.

Did you know the only round of the NCAA that Florida has never lost in is the fourth round? The Gators had reached the regional final twice before, beating Boston College (74-66) in '94 and Oklahoma State (77-65) in '00. That streak --- if two wins can count as a streak --- was on the line as the Gators took on Villanova. The Wildcats had really dominated the Gators the year before and their three guard lineup was a major concern. But this game was not going to be decided on the perimeter. It was settled in the paint where Noah and Horford completely dominated the contest. Noah led the way with 21 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks and Horford was right behind with 12, 15 and 2. The Gator defense harassed 'Nova into 4-23 from three-point range and the Gators were Final Four bound, 75-62.

Cinder-Reality Check

George Mason shocked the hoops world by beating the powerful Connecticut Huskies in the Regional Final, but their ride was about to end. We heard for a week about all the problems this team would create, but too little was said about the problems the Gators would cause the upstarts. Florida's front court was simply too good, too big and too athletic. Brewer scored 19 points, Horford grabbed 13 rebounds and Noah blocked four more shots. Add in another six bombs from Lee Hump-three and the Gators cruised to a 73-58 win.

Count me among those who were concerned about the incredible defense shown by UCLA in their semi-final drubbing of LSU. The Bruins looked plenty athletic enough to run with the Gators and their backcourt of Afflalo and Farmar was bigger and strong than Florida's Green and Humphrey.

Yet the game was in Florida's control from the national anthem. Corey Brewer's defense in the first half was phenomenal and Taurean Green's floor generalship sensational. Noah was spectacular with six blocks and Horford was steady down low. And, again, Lee Hump-three was on target with 4-8 from behind the arc.

The Gators' 73-57 win was highlighted by just six turnovers, a title game record. The Gators became the first team in 38 years (UCLA '68) to win both Final Four games by at least 15 points. Noah was named the M-O-P of the Final Four. The lone senior, Adrian Moss had nine points and six rebounds in the final, all in the first half. Taurean Green had an incredible eight assists with just one turnover. Lee Humphrey (10-20) and Corey Brewer (5-9) provided excellent outside shooting in the Final Four while Al Horford grabbed 20 rebounds in the RCA Dome.

Florida's NCAA Tournament run saw the Gators win six games by an average of 16 points (73-57) thanks in large part to superb defense, holding opponents to 35 percent from the field and 27 percent from long range. As a result, no Gator opponent topped 62 points in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators averaged 14.5 assists and 7.3 blocks in the tournament. And, of course all five starters averaged in double figures.

Billy Donovan brought the Florida Gators from an occasional player to a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament. But in the spring of 2006 he brought the Gators the next step, to the elite list of NCAA Champions. It is probably the #2 sports story in UF history… no lower than #3, but it is certainly the #1 story of this past sports year.

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