- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — Florida’s winding approach last night took it from the paint to the perimeter and back inside.

The result of the long journey — one a decade in the making under coach Billy Donovan — was the Gators’ first national title.

The third-seeded Gators bruised their way to an early lead with dogged play in the paint at both ends of the floor, then unleashed a flurry of 3-pointers to start the second half to bury second-seeded UCLA 73-57 in last night’s national championship game at the RCA Dome.

Joakim Noah, the most outstanding player of the Final Four, scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds, and Lee Humphrey added 15 points for the Gators, the first SEC team to win the tournament since Kentucky in 1998.

“Don’t be upset if we don’t do a lot of homework,” Noah said moments after Taurean Green danced away the final seconds before heaving the ball at the buzzer. “We’re going to be shining a lot in the next few weeks.”

Florida (33-6) emphatically reversed its recent history of postseason stumbles with an impressive shredding of a UCLA team whose defense had carried it to its first NCAA final since 1995.

With confetti underfoot, the Gators snipped down the national championship nets less than two decades after making their first NCAA tournament appearance and just 10 years after Donovan was charged with bringing Florida’s basketball program to the elite level its football team has long occupied.

With a national title in tow, Donovan has done more than anyone in Gainesville could have expected.

He has insisted throughout the tournament the Gators’ run was not about him, but it did vault him into elite company. Donovan is one of nine active coaches with multiple title game appearances and joined Bob Knight and Dean Smith as the only men to play in the Final Four and win a title as a coach.

UCLA (32-7) had lost only once in 12 previous title game appearances but had only advanced to the championship game once since legendary coach John Wooden’s retirement. The Wizard of Westwood’s success cast a long shadow on his many successors, though it appeared third-year coach Ben Howland was prepared to forge his own legacy beginning with last night’s game.

With Wooden watching from a hospital room in the Los Angeles area (he is expected to be released in the next few days), the Bruins were poised to carry the defensive mojo that helped them limit Memphis and LSU to 45 points apiece heading into the final.

Instead, it was the Bruins who found themselves unable to establish an offensive rhythm, consistently encountering resistance upon entering the low post. Noah harassed UCLA all over the paint, changing the course of as many shots merely by the prospect of his presence as he actually altered with his own hands.

Noah blocked a championship-record six shots, while Florida swatted away 10 as a team, also a title game record.

“Their defense was terrific,” said Howland, whose team shot 36.1 percent. “We had some opportunities, but we were moving too fast. … You have to shot fake against a guy like Noah. We had opportunities where we had him angled to shot fake. I thought our guys were probably sped up there, especially early in the game.”

Florida’s defensive presence carried out to the perimeter, where Corey Brewer harassed Arron Afflalo, the Bruins’ leading scorer, for much of the night. Afflalo was held scoreless until he made two free throws with 11:28 left and finished with 10 points.

UCLA remained within single digits throughout the first half only because of sophomore point guard Jordan Farmar, who had 12 of his 18 points before the break. Farmar’s teammates were a combined 3-for-19 in the first half, including a ghastly 1-for-8 on layups.

“Corey Brewer’s a heck of a defender and he stayed in front of the ball,” Afflalo said. “Their bigs are great shot-blockers. They played to perfection tonight.”

The Gators took a 36-25 lead into the second half, larger than the one it held two nights earlier in a semifinal defeat of George Mason. Florida, though, followed an identical script to finish off the Bruins.

Humphrey drilled a 3-pointer to bump the lead to 14, then added another a minute later to make it 42-25. As if to accentuate the Gators’ ability to foil UCLA’s previously redoubtable defense, Brewer delivered a 3-pointer with 16:07 left to make it 45-27.

The title caps Florida’s two-decade surge from basketball backwater to the top of the sport. The Gators had never even reached the NCAA tournament until 1987, but a Final Four berth under Lon Kruger in 1994 hinted at the hardwood possibilities the Sunshine State could produce.

Ultimately, it was Donovan who was able to build a recognizable program, though one not always successful in March. The former Providence point guard who helped the Friars reach the 1987 Final Four later became an assistant to Rick Pitino at Kentucky and then a coach at Marshall, earning a reputation as a recruiting maestro along the way.

He put those skills to work quickly in Gainesville. The Gators reached the Sweet 16 in 1999 — Donovan’s third season — and the national title game a year later to begin a string of eight straight 20-win seasons.

Yet postseason failure had dogged Donovan in recent seasons. Florida had not escaped the NCAA tournament’s first weekend again until this year, earning a reputation as a perennial disappointment. Even the presence of players like Matt Bonner, Udonis Haslem, Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee could not snap the Gators’ March miseries.

With Roberson, Walsh and Lee departing after last season, Donovan turned over his team to a group of energetic young players. Taurean Green went from seldom-used reserve to solid starting point guard, while Brewer developed his slashing style to the basket to complement his already sound defense.

However, it was Noah’s rapid progress that ensured the Gators would finally break through. The son of former tennis star Yannick Noah, the sophomore combined athleticism, ceaseless energy and increasing polish to evolve from a fan favorite to a force at both ends of the floor.


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