ATLANTA – Joakim Noah was running in the corridor – for Monday night, for history – screaming, "I never lie to you baby! … I never lie." He told Al Horford that they would get back here together, that they would make history this season, and so Horford let out a laugh and nodded before they disappeared into the locker room.
Outside, you still could hear screams of joy late Saturday night at the Georgia Dome. All together, they were the most unburdened of souls, unaffected by the pressure of repeating as national champions, untouched by the specter of Billy Donovan, their coach, running off to the University of Kentucky at season's end.
Once again, Florida destroyed UCLA at the Final Four. This time it was 76-66, and truth be told, the scoreboard didn't do justice to the brevity of the beatdown on the Bruins. Across the past year, the Gators had stayed together against improbable odds to chase one more championship, chase back-to-backs in an era when one title almost always assures everyone runs to the NBA and insists that it's time to get theirs.
"Well," Horford said in the locker room later, "this is what we came back for."
Yes, it started with Noah staying for his junior year, and Horford and Corey Brewer too. And this was some show on Saturday night, a systematic dismantling of a UCLA defense that had humbled everything in its NCAA tournament path. There is an inevitability about the way these Gators are playing ball, about how they've left such carnage in their wake this season. Ohio State needs to play brilliantly to beat Florida because anything less will leave it a loser on Monday night.
Only the Buckeyes and one-year wonder Greg Oden stand between the Gators and the greatness that goes with climbing onto a basketball Rushmore with Krzyzewski's Duke and Wooden's UCLA as the last teams to repeat as national champions.
Before a futile Bruins run in the final minutes, Florida had built its lead to 18 points, with Horford (17 rebounds) dominating inside and Brewer (19 points) letting loose with four long three-pointers. Whatever doubt lingered about the Gators' ability to compartmentalize the relentless pall of Donovan's future with Kentucky was obliterated in the Dome. Whatever Donovan does, he does. He has a lifetime of national championship seasons awaiting him, but these kids have Monday night and they've treated this opportunity like a precious jewel.
Over the past three seasons, Florida has won 21 of 22 postseason games, running roughshod through the SEC and NCAA tournaments. Maybe it's the second program in Gainesville (where football is king), but this run clearly has established the Gators as the best in college basketball.
"They have no weaknesses," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. And that's interesting because as well as anyone in the college game, Howland has the capacity to take the most minimal of flaws and wrap his Bruins' tentacles around them. Against the Gators, resistance was futile. They had too many finishers, too much unselfishness to be undone by UCLA.
And finally on Saturday night, Billy Donovan worked his way out of the Gators' locker room for the 100-foot walk to the golf cart waiting to whisk him to his news conference. Beyond a barrier rope, there was Jerry Tipton, the dogged Kentucky beat writer for the Lexington-Herald Leader, hustling with Donovan. He wasn't letting him out of his sight.
The imagery was unmistakable: Florida was on its way to the national title, with Kentucky in hot pursuit.
Whatever the Memphis Grizzlies think they can offer Donovan, they can forget it. He has sworn to friends that he never is taking a bad NBA job, never. When one of his prodigies called him about a head coaching opportunity at a suspect locale, Donovan warned him that it would be a mistake. He mentioned a lousy Eastern Conference franchise that he said had offered him a job, and he told the young coach that he never would make that mistake in his career.
The Miami Heat? Yes, that team intrigues Donovan. The New York Knicks? That's always been his dream job. The Grizzlies, with ownership woes, a slashed payroll and a franchise player dying to get out? No chance. Privately, Donovan has told several people – including former players and coaching confidants – that he's going to take a long, hard look at Kentucky next week. He's had 10 years to think about this job, to decide if he wanted to go be the emperor in Lexington, and the money – maybe 3.5 or 4 million dollars a year – will be tough to turn down.
But whatever happens Monday night, Donovan and his basketball team still will return to a school and a state where Wooden's dynasty couldn't make basketball bigger than fall Saturdays. Nevertheless, history doesn't care about Gainesville's priorities, only the Florida Gators' greatness. Behind Noah, these Gators made a pact to return to school and return to glory. One more victory, and maybe they all go their separate ways. One more victory, and Florida is one of college basketball's forever teams.
All together, Florida is here again, on the cusp of a championship. Joakim Noah never did lie to Horford and these Gators.
- Billy Donovan
- Joakim Noah
- Al Horford