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Gators relish bad-guy role

Published April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS - Sometimes, the villain gets to live happily ever after. Sometimes, fate takes a break and the fairy tale ends with tears.

Sometimes, the best team really does win.

Which is why the Florida Gators are heading to the NCAA championship game against UCLA on Monday night while George Mason, the team with the dreams of Cinderella, becomes the greatest story never fully told.

"It feels good to be the bad guy," UF sophomore Joakim Noah said.

That they are. The team that was nobody's favorite in November, is nobody's darling this morning. That's what happens when you get invited to the ball, and you wind up giving Cinderella a whack in the mouth.

"It was a great run for them," center Al Horford said. "But it was time for them to go."

You would have known that if you were in Florida's locker room before the game. You would have felt it when you heard coach Billy Donovan shouting that Cinderella's story was about to come to an end. You would have believed it if you could have seen the players whooping and hollering in agreement.

"That's what I was thinking," forward Corey Brewer said. "Let's give Cinderella a kiss, put her back in her carriage and send her home."

Here in the heartland, where the movie Hoosiers might be classified as a documentary on religion, the love of George Mason was clear. The Gators were greeted with a healthy dose of jeers when they reached the court.

It didn't matter.

Nor did it matter that the Patriots had a senior-dominated lineup. Or that the George Mason pep band kept playing Bon Jovi's Livin' on a Prayer.

No one in the SEC tournament could slow the Gators down. They didn't get swallowed up by the pressure of past failures in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Last weekend, they weren't stopped by the swarming guards of Villanova, nor the freakish front line of Georgetown.

So what made you think a little thing like destiny would get in their way?

"We didn't want to be a part of their movie. No Glory Road," said junior Chris Richard. "We didn't want to be the team in the movie that gets upset by the good guys."

If a fairy tale is what you're looking for, then Florida is going to be a stretch. The Gators have some charm of their own, but they're a little too big to fit in Cinderella's glass slippers.

Their best hope is a Shrek imitation. They can be just as fun and nearly as lovable. And they do tend to play like ogres.

You see, no one gets inside on Florida. No one gets to run the fastbreak against the Gators. And, absolutely no one is allowed near the 3-point line.

Florida has played 200 minutes in the Tournament, and has trailed for barely 20. Except for a few minutes against Georgetown, the Gators have gone wire-to-wire with the lead in the second half of every game.

"What should the headlines say about us," Noah asked himself. "You could say the Gator boys are hot. Unstoppable with a question mark. Say this team shines regardless. Say we're sexy. Whatever you want."

Here's what we will say:

The Gators are playing as if they have no weakness.

Just when you think Noah is their star, Brewer hits a game-winning shot. Just when you think the inside game is the only answer, point guard Taurean Green plays the game of his life. And just when you think fate is on Cinderella's bench, Lee Humphrey starts knocking down 3-pointers.

"That's what makes us special," Noah said. "At this point in the season, you have to have a team effort. You have to play together."

Funny, but it took the Gators some time to remember that Saturday night. For the first 20 minutes, they looked like anything but the unselfish bunch that had rolled through the tournament's first four rounds.

They shot often, and they shot wildly. They did not move the ball around, and when they did it was often in desperation.

Noah seemed more interested in impressing than winning. He tried to drive, he tried to take jump shots, and he looked terribly out of character.

But, like they did against Georgetown, the Gators found themselves at halftime. They began moving the ball around and Humphrey came open on the perimeter. UF hit 7-of-8 from the field to start the second half, and the game was never close again.

The Gators have won 10 in a row, the second time this season they have put together a double-digit winning streak. They play defense as well as anyone, they are more unselfish than most and they play with zero fear.

In other words, they have the look of champions.

"It's a great feeling right now, everybody is excited," Noah said. "But the journey is still not complete."

You don't have to believe in fairy tales to see a happy ending in Florida's future.

[Last modified April 2, 2006, 01:25:16]

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