Gators' 'Circus' Gets Chance at an Encore

Lee Humphrey made seven three-pointers and led Florida with 23 points in Sunday's Midwest Region final.
Lee Humphrey made seven three-pointers and led Florida with 23 points in Sunday's Midwest Region final. (Brian Snyder - Reuters)
By Eric Prisbell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 26, 2007

ST. LOUIS, March 25 -- Florida's Joakim Noah lingered on the court of the Edward Jones Dome as long as possible Sunday, lifting babies, hugging coaches and criticizing the media. For Noah, the histrionics represented an emotional release after carrying the expectations of a defending champion for 12 months.

With its 85-77 victory over third-seeded Oregon in Sunday's Midwest Region final, Florida moved within two victories of becoming the first repeat national champion in 15 years. A team as rare as its outspoken star will bring the same starting five that won last year's title to next weekend's Final Four in Atlanta.

The last school to win back-to-back titles, Duke, nearly stumbled in the 1992 region final before Christian Laettner's oft-replayed, buzzer-beating shot. Florida's stiffest adversity, however, did not come during Sunday's game but rather during the course of a season laden with distraction and scrutiny.

Long after Sunday's game, Noah remained in Florida's dressing room, where he compared the season to a "circus." He said Florida was unfairly given no margin for error by much of the public and was forced to confront endless speculation about NBA aspirations.

"We were under the microscope for so long," said Noah, who had 14 points and 14 rebounds Sunday. "There was so much hating. You guys [the media] tried to divide us."

Because of those obstacles, real or perceived, Noah said reaching the Final Four this year is even more "fun" than last season. Next week, Florida will encounter some of the same storylines as last season when the Gators (33-5) meet UCLA on Saturday in a rematch of last year's national title game.

Florida had not looked like the overwhelming force that earned the overall top seed in the NCAA tournament after struggling to win tournament games against Purdue and Butler, two teams that tried to control tempo. But Florida displayed its offensive balance Sunday and left Oregon's Aaron Brooks impressed because it was clear that the Gators "were still hungry."

"When they got to that one game before the Final Four, whatever was missing before," Oregon Coach Ernie Kent said. "I've heard people talk about them not being as focused, we knew we were going to get a focused basketball team."

Florida did not score a field goal for the final 8 minutes 16 seconds of the game, but managed enough rebounds, blocked shots and free throws in the closing minutes to hold off the undersized Ducks.

Florida used its size advantage to dominate the rebounding battle, 39-24, but couldn't exploit Oregon (29-8) offensively on the interior. Noah and Al Horford only combined for 5 made field goals in part because of the help provided by Oregon's guards.

What helped the Gators win was their shooting touch from beyond the three-point arc. On numerous occasions, Oregon guards were slow to rotate back to the perimeter, which left Florida guards Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey open.

Green scored 21 points, including four three-pointers, and was named the region's most outstanding player. Humphrey scored 23 points, including seven three-pointers, and was so hot in the first half that his three from NBA range ripped a strand from the net, causing a delay in the game for several minutes.

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