- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — In 1983, professional tennis player Yannick Noah became the first Frenchman to win the French Open in 37 years. That’s the same year N.C. State pulled one of the biggest upsets in NCAA tournament history by knocking off powerful Houston, the intimidating dunking machine known as Phi Slama Jamma.

Twenty-three years later, history did not repeat. The bigger, stronger, quicker team won. Florida staged a dunk-fest against the UCLA and turned its shots away at the other end. The Gators outmuscled and outraced the Bruins, kicking a little sand in their faces along the way to remind them who was boss. And the biggest bully of all was Yannick Noah’s not-so-little boy.

Game, set, national championship to Florida, its first ever.

A ponytailed force on both ends of the floor but especially the defensive end, Joakim Noah was a mean, nasty bear among cubs at the RCA Dome as the Gators overpowered UCLA in their 73-57 victory. He is listed at 6-foot-11, but he played at about 10 feet against UCLA, and afterward, after he was named the Final Four’s most outstanding player, he hugged his dad and threw his No. 13 jersey into the crowd.

Given the magnitude of the moment, he might want it back.

With perhaps the great shot-blocker of all-time, Bill Russell, looking on, Noah in just the first half set a championship-game record with five blocked shots. He finished with six to go with 16 points (7-for-9 from the field) and eight rebounds. He swallowed shots whole or just swatted them away with impunity. The Gators had 10 blocks in all, wiping out the old title-game record of seven that was held by six teams.

“Defensively, he’s just long,” UCLA’s Aaron Afflalo said. “He has the ability to change shots that he’s not blocking. He plays with a lot of energy.”

Noah also showed some deft, fluid moves on offense, which usually led to thunderous dunks that shook the Dome more than the tornadoes that hit downtown the night before.

All he needs is an outside game. But then, that might be too scary.

Like all great defenders, the suggestion of Noah lurking in the area was enough. Not that the Bruins were intimidated — they tried to test Noah repeatedly, with mostly unfortunate results — but 7-1 center Ryan Hollins did hoist a two-foot airball with Noah in the neighborhood and allowed the rim to block another of his shots.

“He has good timing,” UCLA guard Jordan Farmar said. “He does a good job of staying on the ground and not going for shots he shouldn’t. He was definitely a factor.”

Lorenzo Mata, a 6-8 reserve sophomore for the Bruins who was wearing a facemask to protect a broken nose, short-armed a couple of shots close to the basket.

UCLA, which had won 12 straight games, had a marvelous season under third-year coach Ben Howland. But the Bruins were not especially accurate from outside all season, and their inside game was suspect. Teaming up on the interior with Hollins was Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a freshman from the African republic of Cameroon who stands 6-7 and looked smaller than that next to Noah.

Those two pretty much represented the Bruins’ interior presence.

Noah’s starting partner, meanwhile, is Al Horford, a 6-9 bruiser. Off the bench came 6-9 Adrian Moss and 6-8 Chris Richard. All are described as “thick” in hoops parlance.

The Gators’ big men had a feast. It was somewhat reminiscent of Florida’s win against Villanova in the regional finals, during which Noah had 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, with Horford chipping in 12, 15 and two.

Against the Bruins, Florida broke a 6-6 tie with 17:12 to play and never trailed again. The Gators led by 11 at halftime. Before the game, a lot of talk centered on how the UCLA resurgence this year was keyed by its commitment to defense. While true, it was Florida and Noah who limited UCLA to 29.6 percent shooting in the first half and 36.1 percent for the game.

Mainly because of its dominant inside play, Florida shot nearly 45 percent against a Bruins team that held LSU to 32 percent in Saturday’s national semifinal.

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