Florida 76, UCLA 66
ATLANTA (AP)—First, an instant replay. Next, a classic repeat?
Florida and its in-demand coach, Billy Donovan, moved one win away from a second straight national championship Saturday night, defeating UCLA 76-66 in a game that looked very much like the meeting between these two in last year’s Final Four.
Corey Brewer scored 19 points, Chris Richard had 16 and Lee Humphrey had 14 more as the Gators got the best of the Bruins again, adding this semifinal win to a 73-57 rout in last year’s title game.
“We’re back in the championship game and I couldn’t ask for anything else,” Brewer said.
This victory for the Gators (34-5) set up another sort of rematch.
They’ll play Ohio State on Monday in the final, hoping for the same kind of result as their 27-point victory in the championship football game earlier this year. The basketball Buckeyes beat Georgetown 67-60 in the first semifinal Saturday.
The football coaches, OSU’s Jim Tressel and Florida’s Urban Meyer, were on the sidelines for this one, too, but only as spectators.
The real stars were Brewer, Humphrey (three 3-pointers in the second half), Joakim Noah and, of course, Donovan, who the Gator faithful hope will rebuff a possible offer from Kentucky come season’s end to keep building on the young dynasty he’s created in Gainesville.
That drama will have to wait at least a couple more days, thanks to a wear-‘em-down kind of effort that looked pretty much like what the Gators did to the Bruins last year.
“You have to give credit to them,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “They have outstanding players and they’re very, very well coached. That all being said, we’re very disappointed about losing tonight and being here for a second straight year without bringing home a championship.”
Florida’s entire starting lineup put the NBA on hold and came back for a chance at a repeat. With one more win, the Gators will become the first team to go back-to-back since Duke in 1992 and the first ever to do it with the same starting five.
It hasn’t been easy. Many believe Donovan did his best coaching job this year, guiding this group of unselfish players to the cusp of another championship despite the target on their chests.
“These guys are as coachable this year as they were last year,” Donovan said. “They listen. The best thing I tried to emphasize to our team is to try and become the best team we can. If we do that, then let the chips fall where they may.”
UCLA (30-6), still stuck on 11 titles, thought it brought a more experienced, better team to Atlanta, and that might have been true. But Bruins guard Arron Afflalo sat on the bench for almost the entire first half with foul trouble and center Lorenzo Mata joined him.
That took a bite out of UCLA’s early tenacious defensive effort, and when Brewer started going off—swishing two 3-pointers in consecutive trips down the floor—the Gators were running to a 26-16 lead and UCLA never much threatened after that.
As impressive as Brewer looked on offense, it was a pair of defensive sequences during that stretch that told the bigger story.
Once, UCLA had a fast break and some decent numbers, but 6-foot-10 forward Al Horford simply stood under the basket and swatted away Alfred Aboya’s shot for one stop. A moment later, Noah got in the way of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in his attempt to go up strong in the paint. Mbah a Moute’s head fake shook Noah, but Brewer simply came from behind to swat the shot.
There was plenty more of that.
Led by Horford’s 17 rebounds, Florida outboarded UCLA 43-26. The Gators blocked six shots and altered countless more. Noah, supposedly Florida’s best player, finished with only eight points but had 11 rebounds and four blocks— typical of the star player on a team that hasn’t seemed to care who gets the credit this season.
In fact, all five Florida starters average in double figures this season yet not one of them averages more than 10 shots a game. On this day, it was Brewer and Humphrey’s turn to score.
“Right now, we’re in the Final Four and it’s all about winning,” Brewer said. “It’s not about you. It’s about the team.”
Brewer did the damage in the first half, making all eight shots he took— three from 3, four free throws and one layup. Humphrey put the dagger in later, making three 3-pointers in an early second-half run similar to the one he fashioned to put George Mason away in last year’s semis.
As for UCLA—well, what really is there to say after a loss in which the final, 10-point margin belied the actual game? The Bruins rolled through the Pac-10 again this season and looked like championship material in dispatching Kansas and Howland’s old team, Pittsburgh, on their way to the Final Four.
But they were overmatched again, and getting their best players in foul trouble early certainly didn’t help. Afflalo finished with 17 points, but they all came after the game was out of reach.
He was crying in the locker room.
“The only thing disappoints me a little bit is that I wasn’t there full-time for my team,” said Afflalo, the junior who might leave for the NBA. “I’m trying to keep my head high and be strong for my teammates. I’m in a lot of pain right now.”
Mata, not a big scorer, was no factor anywhere on the court, finishing with six points and two rebounds before he fouled out.
Mbah a Moute was at least willing to take the ball up in the paint despite constant rejections. His night ended when he picked up his fifth foul with 9:02 left after scoring four points.
Josh Shipp, absent last year and thought to be a possible difference-maker in this matchup, led the Bruins with 18 points, but he couldn’t do it on his own.
In the leadup to this game, many of the Bruins said they thought Florida celebrated a little too hard at their expense last year in Indianapolis. The Gators didn’t hold back this time, either.
Noah tugged on his jersey and thumped his chest a couple of times. Brewer pointed at the crowd, shouted and mugged for the camera. Of course, who wouldn’t be pumped watching the kind of tomahawk jams Horford and Richard put back when noboby boxed them out after their teammates missed shots?
The meeting against the Buckeyes will be a rematch of a regular-season game in Gainesville that Florida won 86-60. Ohio State was a much different team then, mainly because freshman center Greg Oden was just coming back from a torn ligament in his right wrist and hadn’t rounded into form.
“They’re a very, very good team,” Donovan said. “It was a game where I think their team and our team have probably gotten better since then.”