Sunday, April 01, 2007


By ANDY STAPLES The Tampa Tribune

ATLANTA - The University of Florida basketball team huddled Saturday night in the same spot beneath the Georgia Dome stands as it did 22 days earlier. Exactly as they did before a Southeastern Conference Tournament game against Georgia, the Gators held their hands high and said two words.

The first was "Kick." The second still can't be printed in a family newspaper.

Seconds after the Gators took the floor for their second consecutive Final Four, UCLA players stood in the same spot. They also said two words.

"Play hard."

One team came Saturday to play hard. The other came to kick, well, you get the idea.

Just as it did in last year's national title game, Florida hammered UCLA. The 76-66 win set up a championship matchup Monday at 9:18 p.m. against Ohio State.

"[The Bruins] said they wanted to play us," Florida guard Taurean Green said. "They said they had unfinished business. … We felt like they didn't have any respect for us."

For the second time in less than three months, a group of Gators will meet a group of Buckeyes with a national title hanging in the balance. For the first time in NCAA history, the same two schools will meet for the Division I-A football and Division I basketball titles in the same school year.

The basketball Gators would love to emulate the football Gators, who beat the favored Buckeyes, 41-14, on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz., to claim the title. Florida should enter Monday confident; the Gators raced to an 86-60 win against Ohio State at the O'Connell Center on Dec. 23.

Saturday, Florida (34-5) moved one win away from becoming the first repeat champion since Duke in 1991 and 1992. In that time, Division I-A college football, the NBA, the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NHL all have had repeat champions.

UCLA (30-6) put up a better fight in Saturday's first half than it did last year. The Bruins double-teamed the ball on almost every possession, forcing Florida into 10 first-half turnovers. But top scoring threat Arron Afflalo and power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute each committed three first-half fouls, forcing Coach Ben Howland to spend timeouts early to assemble patchwork lineups.

After the Gators went into halftime up 29-23, Florida guard Lee Humphrey made a pair of 3-pointers early in the second to give the Gators a cushion. With the Gators up 44-28 and 13:49 remaining, Howland called UCLA's final timeout. Mbah a Moute fouled out with 9:02 remaining.

"Credit Florida," Howland said. "They're an outstanding team with outstanding athletes, very well-coached, and that's why they're the NCAA champion and playing for it again on Monday night."

Florida forward Corey Brewer led all scorers with 19. Center Chris Richard came off the bench to score 16. Center Al Horford scored nine and grabbed 17 rebounds, only nine fewer than UCLA's entire team. Guard Josh Shipp led the Bruins with 18 points.

For Florida, the win guarantees two more days of unabated speculation about whether Gators coach Billy Donovan will take the Kentucky job after Florida's season ends. Since Tubby Smith bolted the Bluegrass for Minnesota on March 22, Donovan has said nothing to indicate he would take the job. He also has said nothing to indicate he would turn it down.

For three games, Florida players have succeeded in tuning out that particular distraction. With so much on the line Monday, the Gators probably can forget the rumors for two more days.

"We're really excited to be in this situation," Florida forward Joakim Noah said. "We know it's not over yet. We're happy, but we're not satisfied."

As Noah left the court Saturday, he reached the exact spot where the Gators had broken their huddle about two hours earlier. Never breaking his jog, he pumped his fist and yelled.

"Yeah!" Noah said. "Yeah! We're back!"

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