Noah, Gators overcome tradition

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 4, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) &045; Joakim Noah jumped up on the table, puffed out his chest, showed off the &8220;Florida&8221; written across his jersey, and led the fans in a rousing, arm-pumping rendition of the Gator chomp.

Imagine that.

Almost 10 years to the day that &8220;Billy The Kid&8221; arrived on campus &045; against the advice of his mentor &045; the journey was complete. Florida won a national championship. In basketball, of all sports. Against UCLA, of all teams.

Apparently, they do play something other than football down in Gainesville.

&8220;There’s been a lot of hard work and sweat that’s gone into it,&8221; coach Billy Donovan said. &8220;It’s a huge milestone. It’s a huge thing for our state, for our fans.&8221;

Some 10,000 of them poured into the streets around the Gators’ arena &045; maybe it should be renamed &8220;The Swamp II&8221; &045; to celebrate a 73-57 victory over UCLA on Monday night.

Noah & Co. thoroughly dominated the storied Bruins. The lead was 11 points at halftime. It grew

to 20 before the second half was 7 minutes old. And the Gators finished it off with seven dunks on their last eight baskets.

All the Bruins could do was watch.

&8220;It’s indescribable,&8221; said Noah, who had 16 points, nine rebounds, a championship game-record six blocks, three assists, one steal and plenty of help from teammates such as Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey and Taureen Green. &8220;This is the best I’ve ever felt in my life. You work so hard for these moments. They’re so worth it.&8221;

The Gators (33-6) played like they had something to prove &045; and maybe they did.

For much of the weekend, they heard questions about their school’s rather thin basketball resume &045; especially when placed alongside UCLA’s glorious past. The Bruins have won the national title a record 11 times, all but one of them coming in a remarkable 12-year run in the 1960s and ’70s for coach John Wooden.

But that another time, another era. This season belongs the Gators, a team that was too long, too athletic and just too good for the Bruins (32-7).

&8220;We heard about their history, how they won 11 national championships,&8221; Green said. &8220;I really don’t think that mattered coming into the game today. This win is just great for the University of Florida because now we’re creating our own success. We’re trying to make the University of Florida a basketball power.&8221;

Florida? A basketball power?

The idea seemed ludicrous when the Gators went looking for a new coach in March 1996, settling for a 30-year-old, Rick Pitino protege who had a mere two years of head coaching experience at tiny Marshall.

Pitino wasn’t thrilled when Donovan expressed interest in the Florida job, telling the eager young candidate that he couldn’t win at a sport where football was king. Steve Spurrier was at the height of his coaching popularity, winning championships and ruling the Southeastern Conference with his &8220;Fun ‘n’ Gun&8221; offense.

Even though the Gators had reached their first Final Four in 1994, basketball was still viewed largely as something to do between football season and spring football practice.

&8220;Billy, they don’t have any players,&8221; Pitino told Donovan at the time. &8220;If the (athletic director) isn’t patient, it’ll be a death trap for you.&8221;

Donovan took the job, but success didn’t come right away. Early in his first season, the Gators were a mere 7-5 when Spurrier’s football team won its first national championship &045; with a rout of hated rival Florida State in the Sugar Bowl, no less.

The basketball team would finish below .500 that season. The next season, too. But Donovan turned things around in Year 3, beginning a streak of 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances that continues to this day.

Florida made it all the way to the title game in 2000, but lost to Michigan State. All part of the growing process, as it turned out.

When the Gators returned to the season finale six years later, they knew how to finish things off.

&8220;Our faculty rep grabbed me before the game,&8221; Donovan said. &8220;He said, &8216;You know something, Billy, the greatest thing you can do in life is to start something from scratch and build it up to an elite level.&8221;’

Pitino was there for the championship, wearing an orange tie and cheering for the friend that he says should now be known as &8220;Billy the Coach.&8221; Urban Meyer was there, too, but Florida’s current football coach was barely noticed on a pick-your-score night of high-flying dunks and 3-point shots against supposedly the best defensive team in the country.

The Bruins had surrendered only 45 points apiece in their last two tournament wins, shutting down LSU and star center Glen &8220;Big Baby&8221; Davis in the semifinals.

Florida reached 45 on Brewer’s 3-pointer with more than 16 minutes left, stretching the lead to 18. The Gators probably could have pushed it much higher, but they basically spent the rest of the game going through an extended coronation.

UCLA never got any closer than a dozen points the rest of the way &045; a fitting end to a Final Four that didn’t live up to all the buzzer-beating thrillers that marked the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament.

In Indy, all three game were decided by double-figure margins.

UCLA took the court after learning that Wooden, now 95 and still living in Los Angeles, had been taken to a hospital for an illness that wasn’t though to be serious. He was supposed to watch the game on television, surrounded by family members.

He couldn’t have liked what he saw, though third-year Bruins coach Ben Howland tried to come up with a positive spin.

&8220;We had a great year,&8221; he said. &8220;Our goal is to get back here again next year and win it.&8221;

Noah was named the most outstanding player of the Final Four &045; an easy choice. He had five blocks by halftime, already one better than the NCAA championship game record set by Arizona’s Loren Woods in 2001. The son of former tennis star Yannick Noah finished with six in the game and 29 for the tournament, shattering Woods’ record by five.

Noah capped it with a monster dunk with 1:09 left. When the buzzer sounded, he lay flat on his back at halfcourt and let the confetti rain on him. Then he headed off to the stands in search of his family.

&8220;I’m so happy,&8221; Yannick Noah said, wiping away tears from behind his sunglasses. &8220;I’m so happy for him, but also for all of his friends. They deserve it. It’s a beautiful story.&8221;