- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

ATLANTA — From Joakim Noah’s emphatic blocks and dunks to Lee Humphrey’s potent outside shooting to a sweltering and tenacious defense, it sure seemed at times like last night’s Florida-UCLA was a rerun of their last meeting.

The Gators only can hope that sense of deja vu carries into tomorrow night.

Florida rolled into the national title game, dusting off UCLA 76-66 at the Georgia Dome to earn a shot at Ohio State and their second straight national championship.

Corey Brewer scored 19 points for the Gators (34-5), who will try to become the first team to repeat as national champions since Duke in 1991 and 1992.

“This is what it’s all about,” Noah said. “We’re really excited to be in this situation. We know it’s not over yet. We’re happy, but we’re not satisfied.”

The discussion of a repeat began almost immediately after Florida walked off the RCA Dome floor last April with a 73-57 victory over the Bruins. Its talented underclassmen — Brewer, Noah, point guard Taurean Green and forward Al Horford — all came back for their junior years, further fueling talk of an encore.

If the regular season proved anything, it was that the chatter was valid, and the Gators have thrived even more since the tournament started.

“People don’t realize there’s a lot of baggage that comes with winning it all,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “A lot of times it’s stuff as a player you think you want but when you have to go through it not a whole lot that you want. In order to go through a year like this, you have to have guys that remain coachable. … These guys are as coachable as they were last year.”

The Gators are a team with few weaknesses and a surplus of talent, susceptible only when they are both struggling with poor shot selection and an opponent is playing with patience and poise.

UCLA had neither, and Florida couldn’t have pieced together a better example of its invulnerability to a shaky offensive night by a few of its stars. The Gators couldn’t funnel it inside in the first half, neutralizing Noah and Horford.

But it hardly mattered since Brewer and Humphrey (14 points) were a combined 8-for-13 from 3-point range and reserve forward Chris Richard (16 points) was a more-than-adequate substitute for the Gators’ more traditional sources of interior production.

Horford had 17 rebounds, and Noah added 11 for the Gators, who outrebounded UCLA 43-26.

It was a familiar result not only for the winners.

UCLA (30-6) was drubbed in much the same fashion as last year’s title game loss. The Bruins shot poorly and neither effectively rebounded nor patrolled the perimeter — not exactly a formula for success against anyone.

The most striking similarity was the early production — or lack thereof — of star guard Arron Afflalo. The junior quietly scored 10 points with Brewer draped all over him in last year’s final but somehow endured a similarly brutal night in the rematch. Afflalo picked up three first-half fouls, didn’t score until the 6:18 mark and finished with 17 points.

“I really wanted to be there for them and be that aggressive leader for them at both ends,” Afflalo said as he tried to hold back tears. “I committed some bad fouls and put my team at a disadvantage.”

Josh Shipp scored 18 points to lead the Bruins and almost single-handedly kept UCLA close in the first half. The Gators, though, ripped off a 10-0 run just before halftime for a 29-23 lead.

It didn’t get much better in the second half. The Bruins did pull within 32-28 a few minutes in, but the Gators seemed unfazed. Instead, they just unleashed Humphrey, the perimeter assassin who carried Florida into last year’s title game with a barrage of 3-pointers early in the second half against George Mason.

Humphrey hit a pair of 3-pointers to ignite a 12-0 run, a stretch that forced coach Ben Howland to burn off his remaining two timeouts in a fruitless attempt to slow down the Gators. And even when the Bruins’ Luc Richard Mbah a Moute scored to break the Bruins’ drought, Humphrey hit a 3-pointer on the next trip down the floor.

Even the inside scoring eventually came for the Gators, who took only three shots in the paint in the first half. The demonstrative Noah, never loath to show some emotion and beat his chest, did just that after he was fouled while scoring with 4:44 left.

Afflalo’s late burst aside, the final moments were much the same as last season. The Gators efficiently closed out the Bruins, with one noticeable difference that fans streamed out of the arena a bit faster this time.

That’s a scene unlikely to unfold tomorrow, especially if the similarities in Final Four trips continue for the Gators, who will be part of the meeting of schools who also played for the college football title three months ago.

“We’re just excited to have an opportunity to play in a national championship game,” Humphrey said. “It’s been fun this whole year and to be back in the national championship game is exciting for us.”

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