Here's the thing about flinching: split-second reactions can make all the difference in the heat of battle. The slightest slip in concentration can dismantle a dream by affecting the trajectory of not only a shot or a wild sequence, but of an entire basketball game.
Greatness is obviously revealed in whole seasons and games, but when a championship showdown winds its way toward crunch time, that same greatness emerges in very short bursts of activity. The urgency of the occasion forces everyone on the floor to elevate their level of play. The more vigorous the competition, the higher the standards of excellence. The effort spilling out of every player makes it that much harder to operate. As a stanza from "One Shining Moment" says, "in the blinking of an eye, that moment's gone." History must be pursued with total confidence and supreme hunger. Anything less won't be good enough, and history will drift away, never to be reclaimed.
In assessing Florida's historic triumph over Ohio State, which will reverberate through the pages of time, the defining element of the passion play in Atlanta was the simple fact that Corey Brewer and Al Horford wouldn't let the Gators lose. When Greg Oden was great, Brewer and Horford were greater. While the Buckeyes were bold, Brewer and Horford were brilliant. The two men made the kinds of plays that legends manage to make in those brief periods of time when champions separate themselves from the pack.
There were a few moments on Monday night in the Georgia Dome when the Gators' second-half advantage seemed particularly fragile. The Ohio State Buckeyes, down by double digits for much of the NCAA national championship game, were forcing Billy Donovan's team to go to the well again and again.
Enter Al Horford, who began to do things he hadn't done before... not in the 2007 NCAA Tournament, at any rate.
Twice, with the shot clock running down, Horford faced the basket instead of employing his more traditional back-to-the-basket style. The big man from the Dominican Republic has always been agile and skilled, but it's not a regular part of his repertoire to slash to the basket and finger roll the ball into the hoop. But when an uncommonly great team needed unusually heroic plays in the final few miles of a grueling championship chase, Al Horford turned into Corey Brewer and shocked the Buckeyes' defense with a new dimension of excellence.
However, that wasn't the only measure of Horford's greatness in a second half that carried his beloved teammates to the promised land. When Lee Humphrey was open and waiting for a pass, Horford found him for a three that extended a nine-point Gator lead to twelve (64-52) with 7:49 left. When loose balls were on the floor, Horford got them. One of them started a fast break, and another--at the offensive end--led to a huge Taurean Green triple that stretched a tenuous six-point lead to nine (69-60) with 4:53 left. When Green was struggling with the press and needed a big man to go over the top of Ohio State's pressure, Horford did the deed. When the clock creeped inside four minutes and ball possession became just as important as scoring, it was Horford who didn't take premature shots, even when he was wide open within 10 feet of the basket. And when Oden was tired by Billy Donovan's constant rotation of big men, who did most of the dirty work in the final minutes, when Chris Richard was battling foul trouble and Joakim Noah was ineffective?
In those many small moments, Al Horford was the One Shining Gator of the second half, the man whose effort never faltered. It was because of Tito's son that the Gators staved off the Buckeyes down the stretch.
But while Horford crafted the plays a legend makes in the second half to preserve Florida's lead, it was Corey Brewer who--in a similarly singlehanded way--built that lead in a first half when Florida's frontcourt was strangely quiet.
Brewer found new heights--literally and figuratively--of the athleticism that destroyed everyone in his path over the weekend. The Most Outstanding Player of the 2007 Final Four jumped out of the Georgia Dome to swat away Oden himself in the first half. Though he lay on the floor for a minute in the middle portion of the first half, Brewer shook off that scare and terrorized Ohio State's outstanding point guard, Mike Conley. Though assigned to Ron Lewis--the OSU senior sniper who, by the way, didn't make a peep in this game--Brewer's long arms forced turnovers from the Buckeyes' most dependable player. In a game where Oden was having his way inside, Brewer created points for his team in every aspect of play that wasn't affected by Oden's interior presence.
When Oden was occupied by a Florida post player on one side of the court, Brewer found a driving lane from a different part of the floor and scored. When Ohio State's defensive rotations were slow--a recurring problem caused by Oden's refusal to play Florida's high screen-and-roll game--Brewer found open looks that he knocked down. While Ohio State carved out a small game-long advantage within six feet of either basket, Corey Brewer dominated the other 82 feet of the Georgia Dome floor. His presence was that extensive and dynamic. By giving Florida such a huge and overwhelming advantage on the perimeter in the first half, Brewer set the stage for Horford to showcase his full package of skills in the second half.
No one would deny that every Gator played a role in defeating the Buckeyes on Monday night. Even Marreese Speights provided valuable minutes off the bench. But while the Gators' team identity is the biggest reason why Billy Donovan's team managed to win back-to-back national championships, the immediate reality of this title-game triumph is that Corey Brewer and Al Horford lifted the Gators to glory. On the few occasions when this contest was fragile and in doubt, it was Brewer who cemented Florida's first-half advantage and Horford who preserved it in the second half. While Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green shot the three-ball with tremendous accuracy and confidence, it was Brewer and Horford who opened up the court and enabled Florida to impose its will on the perimeter. Even though Greg Oden dunked his way to 25 (points) and 12 (rebounds), it was Brewer and Horford who came up big at every critical juncture of the contest. While Oden won his individual battles, Brewer and Hor ford ensured that Florida won the war and walked away with the hardware.
And so, this amazing journey ends in fulfillment and glory, and moreover, it ends with a weirdly satisfying twist.
Joakim Noah, the lightning rod for all the venom directed toward the Gators this season, was a non-factor on Monday against Ohio State. The icon of this legendary Florida team, the man America loved to hate, was the player who had the smallest amount of impact on this title tilt. The expressive young man who took the world upon his shoulders so that his teammates could escape the spotlight was the player who was strangely silent against the Buckeyes. Oden, the other player who receives as much national attention as Noah, exploded for huge numbers in a game that might send him to the NBA. Noah got into early foul trouble, while Oden avoided foul trouble. Noah didn't grab the spotlight on Championship Monday the way he did a year ago in Indianapolis.
But if the Gator Haters thought that a quiet Joakim Noah was going to stop Florida from fulfilling its destiny and taking its place in the history books, they had another thing coming.
The silence of Joakim Noah in this game is actually the ultimate testament to the team identity the Gators forged in 2007... not just in the NCAA Tournament, but throughout the entirety of the season. If one player was ineffective, everyone else contributed. If a game flow lent itself toward offense, that's where the Gators would excel. If a game flow lent itself toward defense, that's where Florida would maximize its abilities. Monday night, a perimeter-based game relegated Jo Noah to the shadows. So what happens? Corey Brewer dismantles Ron Lewis while shooting the lights out of the ball, and Al Horford plays more like a wing player than a low-post bruiser.
The college basketball world tried to stop these Gators all season long, but whenever opponents thought they had a successful plan of attack, Florida would change shape and offer a second, third or fourth personality that could win a game in a different way with different players leading the charge.
It's so entirely fitting, then, that on a night when Noah--this team's hero and spiritual warrior--surprisingly stepped into the background, the teammates he shielded from criticism throughout the whole season were able to cover his back. Even when he did little, Joakim Noah did much. Even when his personal stats were meager, Noah reaped the rewards of his immense personal sacrifice. Noah gave his whole soul to the band of brothers who returned with him to make some history. On Monday night in Atlanta, the brothers gave back to him, and in the process, they made themselves one of the great teams college basketball has ever seen. And if that wasn't enough, the Gator brothers also gave the University of Florida the title that makes Jeremy Foley's empire the dominant sports program in America.