By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006
INDIANAPOLIS, April 3 -- UCLA has the most storied tradition in college basketball, with an NCAA record 11 national championships and 35 all-Americans. Florida has very little tradition in basketball, with only one other title game appearance before Monday night's at the RCA Dome. While the Bruins had legendary players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton and Don MacLean sitting in the stands, the Gators had a former international tennis star and their football coach as their most recognizable fans.
But because of Joakim Noah, the son of 1983 French Open singles champion Yannick Noah, the Gators won their first NCAA basketball championship by blasting the Bruins, 73-57, in front of a crowd of 43,168. Noah, a sophomore from New York, dominated the game from start to finish, with 16 points and nine rebounds. Noah blocked six shots, a championship game record, and was named the Final Four's most outstanding player.
"It's indescribable," Noah said. "It's the best I've ever felt in my life. You work so hard for these moments and they're so worth it. We worked so hard as a team and gave so much in blood, sweat and tears. Not only does it feel good, it smells good and tastes good. I just can't describe it."
With 57.2 seconds left in the game, and the Gators leading by 15 points, Coach Billy Donovan called a timeout to give his team final instructions. Sitting in the stands across from the Florida bench, Yannick Noah, with his long dreadlocks, sunglasses and Gators T-shirt, raised his arms above his head and screamed at the white ceiling of the RCA Dome.
And after the Gators dribbled out the final seconds of the game, and as guard Taurean Green threw the basketball high into the air, Joakim Noah lay at midcourt and let his body be covered by confetti that was falling from above. A few minutes later, Noah climbed into the stands and made his way through a sea of orange and blue. After climbing about a dozen rows, Noah found his family, first hugging his sisters and mother and then embracing his father, now a music recording star in France.
"When you win, you want to see the people that you love," Noah said. "I was just trying to get to my family. I'm in a state of shock."
The Gators (33-6) took control of the game from the opening tip, forcing their more up-tempo style of play against the Bruins. UCLA had allowed only 45 points in each of its previous two NCAA tournament games, a 50-45 upset of No. 1 seed Memphis in the Oakland Region and a 59-45 victory over No. 4 seed Louisiana State in the national semifinals on Saturday night.
But Florida scored 36 points in the first half against the Bruins and led by 11 points at intermission and by 20 in the second half. The Gators' 16-point margin of victory was the most in an NCAA tournament final since Duke defeated Michigan, 71-51, in 1992.
UCLA, which learned before the game that legendary coach John Wooden had been hospitalized in Los Angeles with a non-life-threatening illness, lost in an NCAA tournament final for only the second time in 13 appearances and failed to win its first title since 1995.
"Florida was terrific," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. "They were very, very well coached. They have outstanding players. This is their night. Unfortunately for us, that's the case. But UCLA is going to be back."
The Gators were the most balanced team the Bruins (32-7) faced in the NCAA tournament. Sophomore forward Al Horford had 14 points and seven rebounds, and senior reserve Adrian Moss had nine points and six rebounds in the first half, after going scoreless in seven of the previous nine games. The Gators blocked 10 shots, setting a record for the championship game.
Florida was just as potent from the perimeter, as junior guard Lee Humphrey scored 15 points and made 4 of 8 three-point attempts. Sophomore forward Corey Brewer had 11 points and seven rebounds, and Green had eight assists and handled the basketball nearly flawlessly against UCLA's menacing defense.
"The in-out game works hand in hand," Howland said. "It would be a lot easier to guard those three-point shooters if you weren't so worried about their big guys inside. If you didn't have the three-point shooters, it would be easier to double down on those guys and make it tougher. So they have very good balance."
But no Florida player was as strong as Noah. He dribbled up the floor to help the Gators break UCLA's full-court press, and Florida scored five consecutive baskets in the second half after weaving through the press with little resistance. Noah altered several other shots other than the half-dozen he blocked, and the Bruins' three front-court starters combined for only 25 points and one blocked shot.
Noah "is very good," UCLA guard Arron Afflalo said. "On offense, he has the ability to go outside. He's not a stiff at all. He's able to make plays from up high, which caused a few problems. Defensively, he's just long. He has the ability to change shots if he's not blocking them. He played with a lot of energy."
So did the rest of the Gators, who did what once seemed unimaginable at a school where it seemed football was really the only sport that mattered: they won a national championship in basketball.
"I realize the importance of what's happened for our program," said Donovan, who, at 40, became the second-youngest coach in Division I to win a national title, behind Bob Knight, who was 35 when Indiana won in 1976. "It's a huge milestone for our program, our school, our state and our fans. I'm so proud I could be a part of something so significant."