- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

MINNEAPOLIS — With Florida minutes away from the Final Four, Joakim Noah threw his head back, screamed and pounded his chest as if to announce Gators’ arrival.

Noah and his sophomore teammates dispatched the last No. 1 seed standing and are suddenly heading to Indianapolis — perhaps as the favorites.

The young, third-seeded Gators beat a steep learning curve with a 75-62 win over top-seeded Villanova in the Minneapolis regional final yesterday and are going to the Final Four a lot sooner than anyone could have thought.

Noah had 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, and fellow sophomore Al Horford added 12 points and 15 rebounds.

“When you’re young and you don’t play in these situations, you just don’t know,” Noah said. “I think the more we play in these situations, the better we’re going to become.”

Point guard Taurean Green scored 19 points for Florida (31-6), which will face No. 11 seed George Mason on Saturday in the national semifinals. No. 2 seed UCLA plays No. 4 seed LSU in the other game.

This marks the first time since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that no top-seeded team advanced to the Final Four — and the second time in tournament history.

“We’re the Gator boys. The Gator boys are hot right now,” Noah said.

Villanova star Randy Foye fouled out with 28.9 seconds left and walked slowly to the bench to hug his coaches and teammates as tears streamed down his face. He carried the Wildcats (28-5) for the second time in three days, without any help from fellow senior Allan Ray.

“Like Randy said, this is going to hurt for a while,” said Ray, who had 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting.

Foye had 25 points, but Lee Humphrey helped keep him from getting free behind the 3-point line. Foye missed six of his eight 3-pointers.

“We’ve won games that way. We’ve shot poorly and then got on the offensive boards and played defense,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They were just too good.”

This was Florida’s eighth straight trip to the tournament under coach Billy Donovan, but so many of his previous teams — minus the national runner-up in 2000 — failed to fulfill their postseason potential.

This tight group of sophomores, led by the fiery, ponytailed Noah, vowed to change that after bonding during their first few weeks on campus. Despite a second-round loss in the tournament last year to Villanova, the Gators are a national best 15-1 in March during the last two years.

“They were unselfish. They wanted to win, wanted to learn. They wanted to work, and they wanted to get better,” Donovan said.

Noah and Horford were too tough for the Wildcats to use much of the flashy, four-guard attack for which they are known. Foul trouble made it impossible in the second half as Foye drew his third at the 18-minute mark, Kyle Lowry picked up his fourth with 14 minutes left and Ray’s third came soon after.

A smooth, sweeping layup across the lane by Ray cut the Gators’ lead to 54-47 with 7 minutes to go. But after a foul by Will Sheridan, a timeout and two more free throws by Noah, it was a nine-point edge for Florida.

The cap came when Horford, slowly backing down with the ball in the post, spun and dropped an easy pass on the baseline to a streaking Noah — who powered up and threw down a rim-bending dunk for a 66-54 lead with less than 3 minutes left.

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Gators reserve forward Chris Richard said. “We’ve been playing together a while and impressed a lot of people in the summer. I’m not going to pinch myself. You know, I’m not cocky, but I knew we had a great team.”

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