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Champions!

A stifling defensive effort nets the Gators their first title.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published April 4, 2006


INDIANAPOLIS - They'll hang a brand new banner in the O'Connell Center soon proclaiming history at the University of Florida.

It will read: "Florida: 2006 NCAA Men's Basketball Champions."

In their first-ever meeting, the Gators dominated early and never let up on their way to a 73-57 victory over UCLA in front of 43,168 at the RCA Dome on Monday night.

"It feels great. It feels wonderful. It feels so good, I can't explain it," said forward Corey Brewer, a member of the all-tournament team who had 11 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

"For all the people who said we wouldn't even make it to the NIT, look now. Does this look like the NIT? We're the national champions."

He waited until 10.2 seconds left to break into a smile, but finally, triumph came for coach Billy Donovan. Donovan, 40, became the second-youngest among active coaches to win a national title. (Bob Knight was 35 when he won his first at Indiana.)

Donovan also becomes the third to play in a Final Fourthen win a title as a coach, joining Knight and former North Carolina coach Dean Smith.

The team with the starting lineup of four sophomores and one junior, the group that began the season without three starters from last season and unranked, finished the season with a school-record 33 wins (with six losses), went 11-0 in neutral site games and 20-0 against non-SEC schools.

The game was billed as the school with the rich tradition vs. the school with ... well ... not very much, at least not in basketball. UCLA had won 11 national titles. The Gators had none. Florida was making its second national title appearance, the other in 2000.

Bruins fans in attendance included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Reggie Miller and Bill Walton. Florida had last year's star center, David Lee, now with the Knicks, football coach Urban Meyer and Louisville coach Rick Pitino, Donovan's former coach, father-figure and mentor.

"This is what I hoped for, but I never imagined it would be like this," Pitino said at halftime, wearing an orange and blue tie he recently bought in New York especially for the game.

Frankly, who could have?

Florida led 36-25 at halftime then opened the second half with three consecutive 3-pointers (two from Lee Humphrey, one from Brewer) to take a 45-27 lead 3:53 in.

"We wanted to keep the pressure on, and we felt like that really opened things up," Humphrey said.

In a game where defense was supposed to be the focus and UCLA's was considered the star attraction, it was the Gators whose defense dominated.

Florida held UCLA to 36.1 percent shooting and 3-of-17 on 3-pointers. UCLA had just eight field goals in the first half, (29.6 percent), five by point guard Jordan Farmar.

"You have to credit Florida. I thought they were terrific," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "They did an outstanding job of dealing with our pressure. They only had six turnovers, and that's a very, very important stat because we were trying real hard."

Against the Bruins' vaunted defense, Florida shot 44.4 percent in the first half.

"Everyone talked about defense, but I felt like this game was going to be about offense," Donovan said.

Ironically, UCLA, which was expected to play a slow-down game with the Gators, began pushing the tempo late in the first half because it wasn't able to score in the halfcourt.

"Everyone was talking about their defense. But if you think about it and really look at it on paper, we had the better defense," center Al Horford said. "They have a great defense, but maybe now people will start talking about how good our defense was, too."

Joakim Noah, the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, had 16 points and nine rebounds and broke the NCAA record for blocks in a tournament with 29. Humphrey had 15 points. Guard Taurean Green had eight assists and one turnover. Green, Humphrey and Noah were selected to the all-tournament team with Farmar.

Sunday, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said the Gators needed a banner to hang from the rafters at the O'Connell Center to prove it is on its way to becoming one of the powerhouses in basketball.

Get the ceiling cleaned up.