“We’re just a mediocre team that wins a lot of games,” Chris Richard said with a sly smile after Florida moved into the National Championship game with a ten-point win over UCLA. Richard was responding to the question I asked him about playing defense, something the Gators didn’t get much credit for while playing through the NCAA tournament.
“We take that personally,” Chris said. “Everybody was talking about UCLA’s defense but we think we play pretty good defense too.” Walter Hodge, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer all echoed the same sentiments. So that’s what Billy Donovan used to motivate his team against the Bruins! They were playing hard but things weren’t going their way early in the game.
“It was a defensive kind of game,” Brewer told me outside the locker room. “What was it 6-2 ten minutes into it?” While the defense was strong, Florida wasn’t hitting the shots they were getting, but the lead by six at halftime anyway. “It’s my job to hit those open jumpers,” Lee Humphrey explained. “We’re going to create chances and when I get them, I have to knock those down. I got plenty of good looks in the first half but they just didn’t go. I started making them in the second half.”
It was interesting to see the Gators take over the game in the span of about five minutes in the beginning of the second half. They played their inside/out game, getting the ball into the post to either Joakim Noah or Al Horford who were instantly double-teamed. As soon as that happened, the guards would go to the open spot on the perimeter and the ball would come back out to them, leaving an open look at a 3-pointer. Once Humphrey and Green found their range, the game was over.
Plus, Brewer was feeling it from the outside and when that happens, he’s unstoppable. “I was comfortable and got into the flow early,” Brewer said.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the game was Richard who was called on early when Horford had some foul trouble. But that wasn’t his only role because occasionally he was in the game with Noah and Horford giving the Gators a rather imposing front line.
“I’m a senior and I want to go out with another championship,” Chris told me outside the locker room. “I just wanted to play hard and contribute.” That attitude has the Gators in the title game again with Richard getting put backs and slams and key rebounds epitomizing what the Gators are all about.
“We like it when our teammates play well,” Humphrey explained. “We like to see each other score and have success.” That’s such a simple phrase but so different from just about everything that’s going on in sports these days that it could easily be laughed off as just talk, but with this team, it’s true.
In a twist that just doesn’t happen, Florida will play Ohio State for the title, this time in basketball. The Buckeyes beat Georgetown with a steady game both inside and out. Greg Oden virtually didn’t play in the first half because of foul trouble, but it didn’t seem to matter. The Buckeyes get into the flow without him and have enough perimeter shooters with Lewis and Conley to run with anybody.
I like the Gators on Monday night but it won’t be a walk.