- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2007

ATLANTA — Florida forward Joakim Noah chided his team’s doubters throughout this season and the NCAA tournament, clearly relishing the prospect that someone, somewhere might actually underestimate the defending national champions’ already accomplished resume.

Last night, the Gators left little to question about their legacy.

Florida ripped Ohio State 84-75 in the national title game at the Georgia Dome, becoming the first team in 15 years to collect consecutive national titles.

Al Horford led Florida with 18 points, Taurean Green had 16 and Lee Humphrey added 14 as the Gators (35-5) blew past the Buckeyes (35-4) with an early salvo of 3-pointers on the way to a performance even more masterful than their title game demolition of UCLA a year ago.

Horford darted downcourt while pointing a finger toward the roof, then lofted the ball skyward as the Gators were covered with confetti after the buzzer sounded.

“This is what we came back to school for,” said Corey Brewer, who finished with 13 points and was named most outstanding player. “That’s what we’re all about at Florida, winning championships. We didn’t settle — No. 1 again.”

It was Brewer, the wiry 6-foot-9 forward, and Humphrey, the quiet Tennessean with a spot-on outside shot, who expunged whatever hope Ohio State might have harbored for a title.

Brewer, an omnipresent defender equally capable of badgering a big man or a sharpshooter, sparked the talented Gators with his offense. He inflicted painful reminders of the foolishness of leaving him open and provided the moment of the first half when he picked guard Mike Conley Jr. near midcourt and coasted in for a thunderous dunk.

Humphrey was his usual self, a superb marksman capable of great things when left with a little space.

It happened all-too-frequently for Ohio State, which allowed the Gators to shoot 10-for-18 from beyond the 3-point line.

“You try to make a run and they came back every time,” Ohio State guard Ron Lewis said. “It showed how much they’re veterans and they’re leaders. They came ready to play.”

Florida’s victory will be remembered on several levels. It was competitive validation for a group of ready-made pros who chose to return for a title defense. It was the coronation of a dynasty, the likes that have nearly gone the way of the dodo in the last 30 years. And it was the final flourish of a rare team that actually fulfilled massive external expectations while satiating its own as well.

From the moment Brewer, Horford and Noah decided to come back to Gainesville, Fla., for another year together and a chance to win another championship in the process, the possibility of a repeat was never too far out of mind.

Those three juniors, along with the backcourt of Green and Humphrey, all averaged in double figures for the Gators, whose balance was perhaps the most important of their many fine facets.

“I think what this team will be known for is its unselfishness,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “It started last April when three starters who could have made millions decided to come back. When those three guys decided to come back, you knew this could be a special team because they already had instant motivation — passing up millions to try to make history.”

Florida became the seventh school to repeat as NCAA champions, but only the second since UCLA’s stellar run from 1967 to 1973. Duke captured titles in 1991 and 1992, and had been the only team in the era of the expanded tournament to successfully defend its crown.

Now the Blue Devils have company.

Duke’s 1992 team went wire-to-wire at No. 1 in the polls and dusted off its eventual title game opponent from the Big Ten (Michigan) in December. This year’s Gators didn’t maintain such a stranglehold on the top spot but remained in the discussion of potential national champions until they cut down the nets last night.

It was a crushing finish for the Buckeyes, a team built on coach Thad Matta’s recruiting prowess and a tribute both to his hustle in the chase for high school stars and the impact of the NBA’s new age minimum rule. His star, freshman center Greg Oden, might not have even attended college without the rule.

The loss, which snapped Ohio State’s 22-game winning streak, was anything but Oden’s fault. The giant scored 25 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, a dominant performance considering how little interior help Oden received against Florida’s posse of big men.

But Florida didn’t bother attacking Oden nearly as much as anticipated, instead leaving much of the work to its outside shooters. And Brewer and Humphrey, who brought down UCLA with their 3-point barrage in Saturday’s semifinal, teamed with Green for an encore against the Buckeyes.

Ohio State surrendered the lead for good just more than five minutes into the game, but it loitered enough to be within 24-22 with 5:39 left. But Humphrey, Brewer and Green hit 3-pointers on successive possessions to inflate the lead to double digits.

Matta called a timeout, and if he had bothered to look at the sideline scoreboard he would have learned both teams had shot 10-for-22 to that point. But things were anything but even, much to the delight of a crowd that leaned heavily toward the Gators.

Conley’s early encounter with foul trouble did little to help the Buckeyes, but their offense didn’t blossom once the second half started. Whenever the Gators were remotely threatened, they turned to Humphrey — the tournament’s career leader in 3-pointers with 47 — for yet another perimeter display.

The Gators achieved their usual even distribution with four players in double figures and two more with eight. Noah’s relative invisibility (eight points in a foul-plagued outing) was merely a blip that soon will be forgotten.

The same isn’t true of the Gators, whose place in the pantheon of college basketball’s great teams is secure.

“I really believe you have to look at this team — and I’m not saying they’re the best team — but they have to go down as one of the best teams to play this game,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I’m not talking about talent, just talking about the intangible of team. For them to do it back-to back-in this day and age and it being so hard, I think they deserve a lot of credit.”

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