Gator done! Florida takes national crown

Stephen Buszka

Almost three weeks after it started, March Madness came to its conclusion earlier this week with a finish that not many saw coming. For the first time since the 1980 tournament, not a single No. 1 seed advanced to the Final Four; the stage was set for a relative unknown to be the last team remaining, the team that trimmed the nets. And so there were four: there was America’s favorite underdog team George Mason, the legendary UCLA Bruins, whose 11 national championships are as intimidating as the team’s defense, LSU and Shaq 2, more commonly known as Glen “Big Baby” Davis, and that young, inexperienced Florida team that wasn’t even ranked in the preseason, with the son of a former tennis star. As it turns out, it was the last of these that cut down the nets. The Florida Gators, a team that starts four sophomores and a junior, overcame the mystique of one of the nation’s more historically great basketball schools, UCLA, and took home the title with a 73-57 victory.

The Gators, who have disposed of their opponents fairly easily in this tournament – outscoring the other teams by 26, 22, four, 13, 15 and 16 points for an average margin of victory of 16 – did just what they, but few others, expected them to, with a 16-point victory against the Bruins.

“I felt like we were going to win this game by a large margin when we came in,” sophomore guard-forward Corey Brewer said. Few others shared his confidence though. Coming into the game, almost everyone expected the stifling UCLA defense to lead the Bruins to the title.

“All our guys heard about for the last day and a half was how great defensively UCLA is,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. The hype was not unwarranted; in their previous two games they had held their opponents to 45 points each and only 52.8 ppg on the season. Florida would have none of this and, instead, stole the show on both ends of the court.

Sophomore Joakim Noah led his team as he did through most of the tournament. Noah, who played just two minutes last year in one NCAA tournament game, anchored his team’s defense by swatting five shots in the first half, setting a new one-game NCAA tournament record. A sixth block in the second half gave him a record 10 blocks for the Final Four and set the tournament record with 29, surpassing the old one by five. His presence helped force a 36-percent shooting night for the Bruins who were hurt by an abysmal 17.6-percent shooting from beyond the arc. The versatile 6-11 big-man also showed how well rounded his game was by pulling down nine boards and dishing out three assists.

His teammates played equally well. With the exception of point guard Taurean Green, all the starters scored in double-figures. However, even Green helped out by overcoming a 1-for-9 shooting performance including 0-for-7 from the outside to lead the team with eight assists, helping to pick apart the Bruin’s defense through his driving and passing. “Taurean did a great job running our team,” Donovan said. “He made great decisions. He put a lot of pressure on their defense in the middle of the floor.”

The Bruin’s were led offensively by sophomore guard Jordan Farmar who scored 18 and senior center Ryan Hollins who pulled down 10 boards to go with his 10 points. However, with only one other starter in double-figures and only four points off the bench (compared to Florida’s who scored 15) the Bruins were not able to match the offensive output of the Gators. The Bruin’s lack of ball control (12 turnovers as opposed to Florida’s six) hurt nearly as much as their poor shooting.

The game was dominated by the Gators who took their first lead with 17:31 left in the first half and never looked back. The lead built up to 11 points at half-time and grew to as much as 20 points at some points during the second-half. The Bruins were able to trim down the lead to 12 points with less than six minutes to go, but they never got closer than that.

With a few seconds left in the game the celebrations began. Crouched down near half court, Noah watched as Taurean Green, the ball handler, started to shimmy. When the buzzer sounded the festivities really began. Streamers fell from the rafters as the Gators jumped, screamed and rejoiced in their first ever national championship. Florida reveled in the glory of the moment. “You work so hard for these moments, and it’s so worth it” said Noah. “You’re like on a cloud. Not only does it feel good, it smells good. It tastes good.” Adding to, but secondary to the win, was the fact that Noah was named as the Final Four’s most outstanding player. He was also named to the All-Tournament team along with teammates Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey. UCLA’s Jordan Farmar was the fifth player named to the team.

A team that had been unranked in both major pre-season polls had climbed into the top-25 and, in the end, came out on top. Corey Brewer summed up the season saying, “Nobody gave us any respect all year. We proved it. We took our respect.”