New York Times – Apr 4, 2006 – Joakim Noah and his Florida Gators were too much for U.C.L.A. tonight, routing the Bruins in the N.C.A.A. title game, 73-57. The championship for Billy Donovan’s team comes 10 years after Steve Spurrier led the Gators to a title in that “other” sport. Spurrier is long gone, and the days of Florida being only a football school appear to be, too.
“Our faculty rep said to me before the game that when you start with something from scratch and you build it up to win a championship, that’s something special,” said Donovan, now in his 12th year at Florida.
For 40 lopsided minutes, the Gators (33-6) were too big, too long and too quick for UCLA, which came up a win short of its 12th national title on a night when legendary coach John Wooden watched from a hospital bed in LA after being admitted for an undisclosed illness that was said not to be serious.
Florida and Noah, voted most outstanding player in the Final Four, won by putting on a thorough display of versatility and unselfishness, a trademark of this team all season.
The Bruins (32-7) were on a defensive tear coming into the championship game, shutting down LSU’s Glen Davis in the semifinals and allowing a total of 90 points in the last two games. Florida, though, was just too much to handle.
Noah capped it off with a monster dunk with 1:09 left. When the buzzer sounded, he laid flat on his back at halfcourt and let the confetti rain on him. His teammates were in a pile a few feet away and Donovan was sharing hugs with his longtime assistant Anthony Grant.
The Gators won this by taking it right to UCLA early, looking to Noah, Corey Brewer and senior Adrian Moss down low, making the extra pass in the key and finishing with 21 assists, 10 of them from their frontcourt.
“They made it very difficult for us to get prepared,” Donovan said. “Just trying to space the floor. And you have to extra pass against them.”
It couldn’t have been what Ben Howland’s team expected had he scouted Florida’s 73-58 win over George Mason in the semis, a game the Gators won from outside and that guard Lee Humphrey ended early in the second with three straight 3s.
The scrappy Humphrey, a junior from Maryville, Tenn., and the only non-sophomore in the Gators’ starting five, did the honors again in this one, spotting up for open looks against a collapsing defense early in the second half. His first 3, 80 seconds into the half, gave Florida a 39-25 lead and forced Howland to call timeout. A sloppy offensive possession ensued, then Humphrey came back with another 3.
After Ryan Hollins’ dunk, one of the few easy baskets for the Bruins all night, Brewer hit a 3 to make it 45-27 and prompt yet another Bruins TO.
But there was no strategy to stop Noah. The 6-foot-11 son of tennis star Yannick Noah dunked, swatted shots and dominated the game, much like his dad did during his magical run to the French Open title in 1983.
Noah had five blocks by halftime, already better than Arizona center A.J. Bramlett’s nine-year-old record for an NCAA championship game. He finished with 30 for the tournament, also breaking a record previously held by Arizona’s Loren Woods.
Noah altered plenty of shots, too — enough that UCLA big men Hollins and Lorenzo Mata looked covered underneath when they weren’t. That’s what happens when you’re facing an intimidating inside presence, and Noah was certainly that.
His final block came with about 5 minutes left after the Bruins had cut a 20-point deficit to 12. Hollins tried to take it strong as a last-gasp effort to get back in the game. Noah stuffed the shot, grabbed the rebound and stood there calmly waiting for things to clear.
About two minutes later, Florida was back up by 16 and those Gator chomps were starting in earnest all around the RCA Dome.
UCLA had all the history behind it, and a pretty good team, to boot. The Bruins just didn’t have enough. Jordan Farmar, who chose UCLA over Florida, was their only scoring threat. He finished with 18 points. His backcourt mate, Arron Afflalo, finished with 10, but was shut out in the first half, while this game was getting away.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was no factor: He had six points and 10 rebounds and wasn’t nearly the presence he was in UCLA’s semifinal win against LSU.
Florida is still 10 titles behind UCLA, but this was a historic win and one that should quiet the few remaining who said it couldn’t be done in Gainesville.
Donovan brought home Florida’s first hoops title while his old coach at Providence, Rick Pitino, watched from the stands, wearing an orange tie. It was Pitino, now at Louisville, who 12 years ago urged Donovan not to take the job in Gainesville, fearing the commitment simply wasn’t there. He wasn’t alone. Not even Florida’s previous coach, Lon Kruger, said the Gators could sustain in basketball the way they did in football — and Kruger had taken them to the Final Four a few years earlier.
Turns out, there’s plenty of money, talent and support to make Florida’s “other” program run.
Indeed, Noah isn’t the team’s only star.
Humphrey ended up with 10 3-pointers during this Final Four and found himself open for most of them, thanks to a brilliant offensive scheme that had the Gators working inside and out.
Horford dominated inside, too, finishing with 14 points and seven rebounds.
Moss, the only senior on the roster, had nine points and six rebounds and did most of his damage coming off the bench in the first half. Four years ago, he was considered a star of the future. Instead, he was really a very nice piece of a bigger puzzle.
And most of all there’s Donovan. He said he didn’t want to be the focus of any of the Gators’ success, but there’s no denying he’s the one who got them here.
“I’m extremely proud,” said Pitino, his mentor. “We talked this morning and everything he said he wanted this team to do, it’s done. It’s really amazing to see.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.