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Here we go again

Another national championship will be decided with a Florida-Ohio State battle.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published April 1, 2007


ATLANTA - As Florida's lone seniors, Chris Richard and Lee Humphrey have a sense of urgency unlike anyone else. Lose, and their college careers are over.

So when the Gators found themselves in a tight game against UCLA on Saturday night in the NCAA Tournament national semifinals, Richard and Humphrey stepped up as you'd expect two desperate men to do.

They combined for 30 points 25 in the second half to help lead the Gators to a 76-66 victory over UCLA in front of 53,510 at the Georgia Dome. It was the Gators' second straight win over the Bruins; UCLA lost to Florida in the championship game last season.

"The way we played in the second half, we didn't have much of a choice," said Richard, who dominated inside, including several baskets off teammates' missed shots. "This is me and Lee's last year. I think we came out and gave all we could tonight. ... We wanted to win this game."

Richard was perfect with 7-of-7 from the field and 2-of-2 from the line for 16 points.

Now Florida will get what it has been working for all season: a chance to defend its national title. The Gators (34-5) play fellow No. 1 seed Ohio State (35-3) Monday night for the men's basketball championship. The game is a rematch of a Dec. 23 regular-season game Florida won 86-60.

"I'm proud of our guys that we're back in a situation to play for it all," UF coach Billy Donovan said.

What looked like it might be a blowout turned much closer at the end.

Trailing 68-52, guard Arron Afflalo scored 10 straight to help pull the Bruins within 10 with 1:47 remaining. Florida hit 6 of 12 free throws down the stretch to maintain its lead.

The Gators led 29-23 at halftime despite committing 10 turnovers (which UCLA converted into just six points) and going 1-of-7 from the field midway through the first half.

But in eerily similar fashion to last year's game, Florida opened the second half with an offensive barrage. The Gators went on a 15-5 run to take a 44-28 lead with 13:51 remaining. Florida led by as many as 18 in the second half.

The Bruins talked all week about how they had wanted a rematch with the Gators since last season, and how they were more prepared this year, which apparently bothered Florida's players.

"After the regional final, they said they wanted to play us again," said guard Taurean Green, who had 10 points. "They said they had unfinished business. ... We felt like they had no respect for us."

The Gators had eight second-half offensive rebounds that led to 16 points (all from its bench players). Florida earned the victory despite 16 turnovers to UCLA's three, shooting 19-of-31 from the free-throw line and being outscored 34-26 inside the paint. Florida was 5-of-12 from 3-point range in the first half, 9-of-22 for the game. Humphrey was 4-of-8 from 3-point range.

UCLA spent much of the game in foul trouble. Heralded guard Afflalo picked up two fouls less than two minutes into the game, then got a third with 11:26 remaining in the first half. Center Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute both had early foul trouble and eventually fouled out.

The Bruins' outstanding point guard Darren Collison struggled, going 3-of-14 from the field and 1-of-6 from beyond the arc. UCLA was 5-of-23 from 3-point range.

"They're very, very impressive," UCLA coach Ben Howland said of the Gators. "They have, as I said coming in, no weaknesses. They have a great inside attack, they have outstanding perimeter shooting, they're very good offensively. And really we were down six at halftime with Arron with three fouls and (having) only played five minutes and it was our inability to score that caused us the most problems. And again, you have to credit their defense. You have to shoot and do better than that to beat a great team like Florida."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.