Going For History! Gators Smash UCLA

ATLANTA, GA — There’s this old saying in Texas that you “dance with what brung you.” What got the UCLA Bruins to the Big Dance in Atlanta — physical, tough guy defense that is designed to frustrate and intimidate — might have worked a lot better in Texas because it sure didn’t work against the Florida Gators at the Georgia Dome Saturday night.

Maybe the Bruins didn’t watch much film of the Gators in their first four NCAA Tournament games. If they had, they might have noticed that four straight under-sized teams tried to muscle up on the Gators and four straight teams saw their season come to an end. Maybe Ben Howland thought his team was just that much better than any team Florida had played so far. Or perhaps he saw what happened to the other four teams and thought that it was too late in the season for a total team makeover so he danced with what got him here in the first place.

In retrospect, the total team makeover might have been a much better idea. Getting physical sure didn’t work.

UCLA pushed, shoved and tried to flex its muscles. All that did was force a few Florida turnovers and got the Bruins in early foul trouble from which they never recovered. The first half turnovers (Florida had 10 of them) and some late foul trouble by the Gators actually helped make the game close (29-23 at the half) but UCLA was a one-trick pony. The Bruins never adjusted what they were doing on defense and offensively, without a low post presence to go against Florida’s superior inside size, there was no chance to get any kind of flow.

Florida, meanwhile, did what Florida does best. The Gators never panicked, even in the beginning of the game when things weren’t going so well, and the Gators had the patience to stay with things that Donovan knew would work.

“Coach kept telling us to keep on shooting because we were getting good looks that just weren’t going down,” said Lee Humphrey, whose four three-pointers made him the all-time three-point shooter in NCAA Tournament play. Humphrey finished the night with 14 points and it was his three three-pointers in a row at the start of the second half that were like arrows that pierced UCLA’s heart.

Ironically, it was Humphrey’s three three-pointers in a row in last year’s NCAA championship game that stomped the life out of UCLA and turned a close game into a rout.

Round two with UCLA was a 76-66 rout seen by the whole world and 53,510 fans at the Georgia Dome and it puts the Gators in the NCAA championship game for the second straight year. The Gators (34-5) will face Ohio State (35-3), a 67-60 winner over Georgetown in the other Final Four game, Monday night in the NCAA championship game. It’s a shot at history for the Gators, who can become the first team since Duke (1991-92) to repeat as NCAA champs. It’s a feat that’s only been done seven other times in history.

The Gators are in the championship game because Billy Donovan took up where he left off last year and turned the game with UCLA into a coaching clinic. The Bruins had a game plan that they felt would work. Florida had counter-strategies that were prepared for whatever UCLA threw at them.

Typically, big games are stories about adjustments. The team that adjusts best usually wins the game. In this particular case, Florida didn’t need to adjust as much as it needed to stay patient. Donovan knew he had a great game plan going into the game. It was just a matter of executing.

The Gators missed their first five shots and six of their first seven. They didn’t hit a shot from the field until Taurean Green knocked down a three with 13:21 left in the first half. Florida didn’t hit back-to-back shots until Corey Brewer hit two straight threes with less than seven minutes to go in the game.

Donovan wasn’t happy that the Gators weren’t hitting open shots, but he didn’t see anything in what they were doing that frustrated him or made him feel it was time to scrap the game plan. The game plan was pretty simple — use the big guys to pass the ball to open shooters on the perimeter and once the shots started falling, drive the ball into the lane and get easy shots for the big guys.

Simple enough, but it didn’t work at first because Florida couldn’t hit an open shot.

“Our post guys were not going to get any shots at all at the basket,” said Donovan. “I knew it wasn’t going to be that type of a game because every time our bigs got it they were going to double. So we really tried to use Al Horford in the first half as a passer and he did a great job of throwing the ball diagonally across to Lee Humphrey and throwing it out to Corey. Corey knocked them down in the first half and Lee knocked them down in the second half. Then in the second half we were able to get Taurean off that little pick and roll down the lane and that forced their big men to step up. We were able to slide our big men down the back side.”

Brewer scored 15 of his 19 points in the first half. Humphrey scored 11 of his 14 in the second half.

“We got the same shots in the second half that we got in the first half,” said Green, who finished the game with 10 points. “The difference was we knocked down shots. We just had to be patient, be strong with the ball and making easy plays.”

Green said the Gators never once panicked and that started with what they saw from Donovan in the huddle.

“He said we were getting good looks, just knock the shots down,” said Green.

“I just tried to encourage those guys to continue to shoot the basketball and take what the defense was giving us,” said Donovan, now 21-7 in NCAA Tournament games. “The defense — their defense —was taking away the low post. They were giving us perimeter shots.”

UCLA gambled that Florida couldn’t hit three-point shots. The Bruins were willing to take their chances on the outside while doubling down on every pass that went inside to Noah, Horford or Chris Richard. The only thing they accomplished with that strategy was to get in so much early foul trouble that they never recovered.

In the first two minutes of the game, UCLA’s first team All-America Arron Afflalo went to the bench with two fouls. He came back in the game later in the half — a calculated gamble by Howland — only to get hit with his third foul. By the time he got any kind of offensive game going the outcome of the game had been decided. He finished with 17 points but 14 of them came in the final 6:13 of the game. By the time he started hitting shots, Florida had an 18-point lead.

Afflalo wasn’t the only Bruin in foul trouble. Lorenzo Mata and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, UCLA’s only low post players, went to the bench with foul trouble in the first half. Like Afflalo, they also fouled out late in the game. Mata finished the night with six points and two rebounds. Moute finished with four points and five rebounds. Their replacements off the bench — James Keefe and Alfred Aboya — managed seven points and nine rebounds. That’s 17 points and 16 rebounds for the entire UCLA front line.

Florida’s three big men, on the other hand, combined for 33 points, 32 rebounds and four blocked shots. Horford had nine points and 17 rebounds. Noah had eight points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots. Richard came off the bench to score 16 points, hitting all seven of his shots from the field.

Florida’s defensive strategy was to take away the three-point line and make UCLA settle for tough two-pointers. Since the Bruins had nothing on the inside, their 5-23 effort from the three-point line was a killer. Since the SEC Tournament, Florida has given up just 33 three-pointers in 143 attempts, a little less than 25 percent. You don’t beat good teams shooting 25 percent or less from the three-point line.

Another example of Florida’s dominance showed in the fact the Gators turned the ball over 16 times while UCLA turned it over only three times. It didn’t matter that the Gators gave up 15 points on their turnovers and got only two in return off one of UCLA’s rare ball handling mistakes.

Florida just had too many weapons, too much size, much better coaching and far more patience.

In the end, it was the patience that was the real killer.

“All you can ask for is good shots,” said Humphrey. “[In the first half] we got good looks we just didn’t knock them down. That’s all you can ask for is to get good shots.”

Good shots got the Gators into the championship game for the second straight year. Last year the opponent was UCLA. This year it will be an Ohio State team that Florida hammered, 86-60, back in December. On this night when Florida took a quantum leap toward making some history, it really didn’t matter who the next opponent is.

“We’re just excited to have another opportunity to play in the national championship game,” said Humphrey. “It’s been fun this whole year. To be back in the national championship game is exciting for us. No matter who we play, they’re going to be a tough team. Ohio State is tough. We’re just looking forward to the challenge.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.