Gators Rewind Show, Play It Again
In a Rematch, Florida Is Too Much for UCLA
ATLANTA, March 31 — As if the clock were turned back one year, UCLA walked onto college basketball’s largest stage again Saturday and confronted Florida’s same starting lineup that thoroughly embarrassed the Bruins in last season’s national championship game.
This year’s national semifinal turned into not merely a rematch, but very much a replay. After overcoming early offensive struggles, the Gators were at their scintillating best in the second half Saturday, cruising to a convincing 7666 victory to advance to Monday’s title game against Ohio State.
The Gators, a collection of stars who put NBA dreams on hold last spring, also moved within one victory of becoming the first repeat national champion since Duke accomplished the feat in 1991 and ’ 92. They are the first champions to return to the title game since Kentucky in 1998.
In the run- up to Saturday’s game, neither team embraced the notion of a rematch. Players from both teams insisted their teams were changed and improved from a year ago. As it turned out, both may be improved but in many ways unchanged from a year ago.
The defensive- oriented Bruins ( 30- 6) still have a difficult time generating enough offensive to beat a multi- faceted team such as the Gators ( 34- 5), who have an abundance of weapons both on the interior and the perimeter. UCLA committed only one turnover in the first half Saturday, but the Bruins trailed by six points at the break because they made just 31 percent of their shots.
The second half turned into an assortment of Florida three- pointers and follow- up dunks. Less than five minutes into the second half, Florida’s Joakim Noah, the most outstanding player of last year’s Final Four, pushed UCLA’s Lorenzo Mata out of the way and converted a resounding follow- up dunk that gave Florida an 11point lead that only grew.
UCLA took away Florida’s potent inside game for half of Saturday’s game, holding Noah and Al Horford without a field goal attempt in the first half. That forced the Gators to rely on perimeter shooting, much like they did in the Midwest Region final victory over Oregon.
If it was not Corey Brewer sinking three- pointers Saturday, it was Lee Humphrey, who had seven threes in the Oregon victory. On Saturday, the sharpshooter made three critical three- pointers in the second half Saturday to stretch the lead to 17 points. Twelve months ago, Humphrey made two critical three- pointers in the second half of Florida’s 16- point victory over UCLA in the national title game.
Through four NCAA tournament games, UCLA had not allowed more than 55 points. On Saturday, UCLA held Florida, which led the nation in field goal percentage, without a field goal for the first 7 minutes 28 seconds of the game. But UCLA’s vaunted defense, consisting of double teams, flailing arms and on- thefloor dives, met its match, and for the second consecutive season.
Coach Billy Donovan will coach in his third national championship game this decade. With a victory Monday, Donovan would join Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to win back- to- back titles since John Wooden more than three decades ago. Even as speculation over the vacant Kentucky job continues to shadow Donovan, the 41- year- old has remained resolute in his focus and preparation.
Much of the attention in Satur- day’s game centered on Florida’s front court, but a critical matchup was expected on the perimeter between the athletic Brewer and UCLA’s seasoned scorer, Arron Afflalo. But Afflalo took an early seat on the bench after picking up two fouls in the game’s first two minutes and was never quite the same.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland chose to reinsert Afflalo a few minutes after the initial foul trouble, only to see the junior get his third foul while trying to stop Brewer from penetrating. Afflalo, who was widely considered the most clutch player in the Pacific- 10, had trouble even staying the floor Saturday and fouled out after scoring 17 points.
Defensively, UCLA employed a double team when Florida’s interior players caught the ball near the basket. That’s how the Bruins forced Noah to travel early in the game, prompting Howland to pump two fists in the air as if the game were a street fight. Most of the time, Florida was disciplined enough offensively to kick the ball back to the perimeter for open three- point looks, but the Gators missed their first five attempts.
UCLA’s offense was no more aesthetic. The Bruins held an early lead even though they made two of their first 10 field goal attempts. On one possession, UCLA was so frazzled that Howland walked several feel onto the floor to emphatically motion for a timeout. No official saw him.
UCLA’s Josh Shipp, who missed all but four games last season with a hip injury, provided a scoring boost in the first half, making six of UCLA’s nine field goals in the half. Shipp’s jump shot gave the Bruins a one- point lead with 7: 20 remaining before Florida went on a 13- 2 run. During the Gators’ spurt, Brewer made two three- pointers on his way toward finishing the half with 15 points.
Chris Richard dunks over Alfred Aboya during a win that gave Florida a chance to repeat as national champion.