Everyone pitched in during Gators' dominant run
INDIANAPOLIS -- For five straight years, Florida's marches through March were short and not terribly sweet. The Gators were always in the NCAA Tournament -- and always back out after the first weekend.
This time, Florida stayed until the end, and in the process, scorched Bracketville to the ground. The final embers were still smoking at the RCA Dome late Monday, after the Gators put a Zippo to UCLA's britches, 73-57.
The Bruins might own dances past, but this waltz was all blue and orange.
A program that couldn't finish became a juggernaut that couldn't be beaten, and only once could even be threatened. Florida won its games in this dance by 26, 22, four, 13, 15 and a sweet 16 points. The 16-point average margin of victory was the highest by a champion in five years.
The onslaught was capped off by an unprecedented title-game beatdown of a higher seed.
The last time a lower seed won on the Biggest of All Mondays by this many points? Never, at least since they started publicly seeding teams in 1979.
"I felt like we were going to win this game by a large margin when we came in," versatile wingman Corey Brewer said. "Nobody gave us any respect all year. We proved it. We took our respect."
Actually, respect for the Gators mushroomed over the past three weeks, to the point that they were the common-sense favorite entering the Final Four. But they had to endure the America's Team talk before playing George Mason, then got an earful on Sunday about how were they ever going to penetrate that UCLA defense.
"All our guys heard about for the last day and a half was how great defensively UCLA is," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't think our basketball team got a whole lot of credit about how good they are defensively."
They get all the credit now, after turning this Final Four into a crashing anticlimax to a riveting tournament.
Send a fruit basket to the Georgetown Hoyas, the only team capable of even scaring the Gators in this Tournament -- and the only team that held a second-half lead on them. And give a nod to Mason, the uber-underdog that actually performed like the second-best team in Indy.
With every easy victory it became clearer that Florida was the class of this tourney, and it was never clearer than Monday night. UCLA had all the tradition, but the Gators had almost all the talent. They appeared to know within minutes after tipoff that they were vastly superior.
"They played to perfection tonight," said UCLA guard Arron Afflalo.
They got little slices of perfection from almost everyone who took off his sweats.
Start with Joakim Noah, whose development has been so spectacular that it looks like the result of time-lapse photography. The Final Four's Most Outstanding Player had 16 points, nine rebounds, three assists, a title-game-record six blocked shots and one blown kiss at the hotties on the UCLA dance team. Mr. Romance also set records for most blocks in a Final Four (10) and in an NCAA Tournament (29).
Noah probably doesn't grasp the impact he's had this March, but when 25 kids show up at the Nike All-American Camp in July with ponytails, he'll have an idea.
"This is the best I've ever felt in my life," Noah said, still riding the bliss of the moment. "You work so hard for these moments, and it's so worth it. You're like on a cloud. Not only does it feel good, it smells good. It tastes good."
Proceed to point guard Taurean Green, who might have had the best 1-for-9 shooting night in Final Four history. Green had eight assists and just one turnover against a UCLA perimeter defense that has made life miserable for point guards throughout this event. The previous five point guards to play against the Bruins -- some of whom are considered among the best in the country -- recorded a total of 13 assists and 15 turnovers.
When Donovan made the decision to attack UCLA's defense with a drive-and-dish, pick-and-roll game plan, he put the offense largely in Green's hands -- and Green came through brilliantly.
"Taurean did a great job running our team," Donovan said. "He made great decisions. He put a lot of pressure on their defense in the middle of the floor."
Credit Lee Humphrey, who dropped in 10 Final Four 3-pointers. Just like Saturday, it was Humphrey who effectively ended the drama coming out of halftime with a salvo of 3s.
Don't forget Brewer, who stuffed his stat line with 11 points, seven rebounds, four assists and three steals in 37 minutes. And that doesn't even reflect the smothering he put on Afflalo, holding UCLA's leading scorer pointless for more than 28 minutes.
And credit Noah's supporting cast on the interior: Al Horford and backup big men Adrian Moss and Chris Richard. They combined for 29 points and 13 rebounds, passed crisply to each other and totally dominated UCLA in the paint.
Moss' play was especially revelatory. The fifth-year senior's career appeared to be ending with a whimper, with 10 points scored in his last nine games. But the only senior on the roster came to life Monday with a stunning nine first-half points and six rebounds overall.
"Boss man," Noah said admiringly of Moss. "He's the leader of this team. I'm just proud to be his teammate."
Noah's teammates undoubtedly are saying the same thing today. His play was the biggest part of a big Tournament turnaround for Florida from years past.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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