March 31, 2007
ATLANTA (AP) - Billyball lives on for at least one more game at Florida. After what felt like a Final Four instant replay, UCLA has certainly had its fill.
The Gators and their in-demand coach, Billy Donovan, moved one win away from a second straight national championship Saturday night, defeating the Bruins 76-66 behind 19 points from Corey Brewer, 16 from Chris Richard and 14 more from Lee Humphrey.
Donovan got the best of Ben Howland and Florida got the best of UCLA for the second straight year at the Final Four, adding this semifinal win to a 73-57 rout in last year's title game.
"This is what it's all about," Gators forward Joakim Noah said. "We know it's not over yet. We're happy, but we're not satisfied."
This victory for the Gators (34-5) set up another sort of rematch. They'll play Ohio State on Monday in the final, hoping for the same kind of result as their 27-point victory in the championship football game earlier this year. The Buckeyes beat Georgetown 67-60 in the first semifinal Saturday.
The football coaches, OSU's Jim Tressel and Florida's Urban Meyer, were on the sidelines for this one, too, but only as spectators. The real stars were Brewer, Humphrey (three 3-pointers in the second half), Noah and, of course, Donovan, who the Gator faithful hope will rebuff a possible offer from Kentucky come season's end to keep building on the small dynasty he's created in Gainesville.
That drama will have to wait at least a couple more days, thanks to a wear-'em-down kind of effort that looked pretty much like what the Gators did to the Bruins last year.
The entire starting lineup came back for a repeat and with one more win, Florida will become the first team to go back-to-back since Duke in 1992 and the first ever to do it with the same starting five.
UCLA (30-6), still stuck on 11 titles, thought it brought a more experienced, better team to Atlanta, and that might have been true. But Bruins guard Arron Afflalo sat on the bench for almost the entire first half with foul trouble and center Lorenzo Mata joined him.
That took a bite out of UCLA's early tenacious defensive effort, and when Brewer started going off - swishing two 3-pointers in consecutive trips down the floor - the Gators were running to a 26-16 lead and UCLA never much threatened after that.
As impressive as Brewer looked on offense, it was a pair of defensive sequences during that stretch that told the bigger story.
Once, UCLA had a fast break and some decent numbers, but 6-foot-10 forward Al Horford simply stood under the basket and swatted away Alfred Aboya's shot for one stop. A moment later, Noah got in the way of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in his attempt to go up strong in the paint. Mbah a Moute's head fake shook Noah, but Brewer simply came from behind to swat the shot.
There was plenty more of that.
Led by Horford's 17 rebounds, Florida outboarded UCLA 43-26, blocked six shots and altered countless more. Noah, supposedly Florida's best player, finished with only eight points but had 11 rebounds and four blocks - typical of the star player on a team that hasn't seemed to care who gets the credit this season.
In fact, all five Florida starters average in double figures this season yet not one of them averages more than 10 shots a game. On this day, it was Brewer and Humphrey's turn to score.
Brewer did the damage in the first half, making all eight shots he took - three from 3, four free throws and one layup. Humphrey put the dagger in late, making three 3-pointers in an early second-half run similar to the one he fashioned to put George Mason away in last year's semis.
As for UCLA - well, what really is there to say after a loss in which the final, 10-point margin belied the actual game? The Bruins rolled through the Pac-10 again this season and looked like championship material in dispatching Kansas and Howland's old team, Pittsburgh, on their way to the Final Four.
But they were overmatched again, and getting their best players in foul trouble early certainly didn't help. Afflalo finished with 17 points, but they all came after the game was out of reach. Mata, not a big scorer, was no factor anywhere on the court, finishing with six points and two rebounds before he fouled out.
Mbah a Moute was at least willing to take the ball up in the paint despite constant rejections. His night ended when he picked up his fifth foul with 9:02 left after scoring four points.
Josh Shipp, absent last year and thought to be a possible difference-maker in this matchup, led the Bruins with 18 points, but he couldn't do it on his own.
In the leadup to this game, many of the Bruins said they thought Florida celebrated a little too hard at their expense last year in Indianapolis. The Gators didn't hold back this time, either.
Noah tugged on his jersey and thumped his chest a couple of times. Brewer pointed at the crowd, shouted and mugged for the camera. Of course, who wouldn't be pumped watching the kind of tomahawk jams Horford and Richard put back when noboby boxed them out after their teammates missed shots?
The meeting against the Buckeyes will be a rematch of a regular-season game in Gainesville that Florida won 86-60. Ohio State was a much different team then, mainly because freshman center Greg Oden was just coming back from a torn ligament in his right wrist and hadn't rounded into form.