It could be more exciting, but I doubt it. The first half of the Championship game had everything you could ask for in a basketball game. Up and down play, physical match ups, unparalleled intensity and a packed, enthusiastic house. The only thing it didn’t have was good shooting. UCLA hit 29% while Florida was a 44%. The Gators were tough on defense though, contesting every shot and making it especially difficult near the basket.
In the first half, Joakim Noah had 5 blocks, the most in one Championship game for any player. And it wasn’t just Noah. Al Horford, Chris Richard and especially Adrian Moss were big for big men in the first half. Moss, the somewhat forgotten senior on this young team lead the Gators with 9 points in the first half. He added 5 rebounds and the Gators lead 36-25 at the half.
The second half started much like the National Semi-final with the Gators hitting threes and increasing their lead. Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer hit back-to-back threes to give Florida an 18-point lead at the 17-minute mark. They maintained that lead at the 15-minute mark after a monster slam by Noah. It looked like a walk, but he stepped forward and back and forward again with his left foot and hammered it home right-handed. Al Horford and Chris Richard worked a double-team pass underneath with a thunderous two hand dunk to give the Gators a 20-point advantage.
At the nine-minute mark, Florida lead by 17 after UCLA’s second three pointer of the night. The Gators are running some clock on each possession and UCLA is pressing all over the floor, trying to create turnovers. Another three cut the lead to 14, but Noah followed with a slam and the Gators were up by 16 with just over 8 minutes to play. They’ll trade baskets with UCLA at this point, but the Bruins are finding their shooting touch. The Gators held things together despite some frenetic play by the Bruins. They took some wild shots but were patient enough to run some clock when they needed to.
Al Horford hit two free throws to give the Gators a 14-point lead, and Lee Humphrey backed that up with a three pointer putting the lead at 15 with a minute and a half to go. The Gators beat the press and finished it off with a dunk by Noah to lead by 17 with one-minute left to play. Florida finished it off by being aggressive and “going to the rim” as Billy Donovan told them and won their first National Championship by a 72-57 margin.
I got a chance to stand on the court as the team celebrated and cut down the nets. It was fun to see such sheer joy among the players, young men playing a game, and among the coaches and administrators, older men trying to shape lives. Florida was never the media darling or the people’s choice in this tournament. They were always the upstarts, the team that was playing over their head and about to get beat.
When did you think, “Hey, we can beat these guys,” I asked Chris Richard in the post-game locker room. “At the tip,” he quickly answered. “Everybody was talking about UCLA and their athletes and their defense and we wanted to show everybody that we were the best defensive team in the country. We gave them a little bit too much respect, but we jumped on them early and never let up.”
“Right when the game started,” Al Horford chimed in. “We knew they were a good team, but we executed what we wanted to do and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.”
“It’s never been about the other team,” Joakim Noah added. “It’s about playing basketball, possession by possession and doing the little things right. When we play our game, it doesn’t matter who the opponent is, we’re not going to get beat. The Gator boys are hot!”
Billy Donovan met us outside the locker room and echoed his team’s comments. “I wanted them to want to play. Not to look at the clock and wish the time away, because then you stop competing. I told them, ‘we want to play like we don’t want this to end. Stay aggressive, go to the rim. Like we say, ‘lay-ups, dunks and Lee Hump!”
Florida’s second half line reflected that aggressive attitude: Nine dunks, one lay-up, four threes and six free throws.
“It’s not so much that I wanted them to “earn it” although I did use that word, I wanted them to go out there and be what they could be. It’s not about the National Championship. That comes after the game. It’s about this challenge, this opponent, and this game. A lot of people were saying ‘how’s Florida going to score, what are they going to do,’ after seeing UCLA on Saturday, but not a lot of people were talking about what we could do. We wanted to show them who we were tonight, and I think we did that.”
I got a huge kick out of Florida winning this title, partly because it makes my friends and family happy and partly because of my affection for Billy. Knowing the kind of work any successful college basketball coach puts in, and knowing the kind of guy Billy is, it was fun to watch him and everybody else associated with the program enjoy it so much. Plus, in a tournament, it happens right in front of you, not through some disembodied vote.
So congrats to the Gators, National Champs!