In a Final Four where the word “repeat” has become the buzzword on many different levels, the Florida Gators secured a date with destiny because of the repeat they managed to prevent.
You didn’t need a rocket scientist to figure out how Billy Donovan’s team advanced to Monday night’s championship game against Ohio State. You didn’t need to think very hard to appreciate the ways in which the Gators’ semifinal smackdown of UCLA in Atlanta paralleled last year’s beatdown of the Bruins in Indianapolis.
Corey Brewer smothering Arron Afflalo and causing more nightmares for the UCLA sharpshooter? Check.
Lee Humphrey with a thermonuclear performance in the first several minutes of the second half to bust open the game? Check.
The least-heralded big man for Florida making an unusually large contribution? Check. Last year’s Adrian Moss became this year’s Chris Richard.
Florida’s length totally dominating within six feet of the rim at both ends of the floor? Check.
UCLA having few offensive options all night long, due to a thin rotation and the Gators’ fundamentally sound defense? Check.
Just like last year, the outcome was decided long before the final horn. UCLA had almost six more days to prepare for Florida, compared to last year’s championship game. It didn’t matter. Not one bit. The Bruins stepped onto the floor of the Georgia Dome Saturday night, but everyone in the building knew that Florida held all the cards. The Gators were going to lose only if they folded prematurely.
They didn’t, and as a result, UCLA was dealt a predictably bad hand for a second straight season.
This brings us to the significant historic dimension of Saturday night’s second semifinal: the repeat the Gators PREVENTED from happening.
This game against UCLA loomed large in the annals of college basketball history because it had the rare distinction of being a National Semifinal that was a repeat matchup of the previous year’s title game. Since the NCAA Tournament was first seeded in 1979, there had been only one prior instance in which this special scenario played out. In 1991, defending champion UNLV traveled to Indianapolis to encounter Duke, a huge underdog and a team the Rebels smoked by 30 points in the 1990 championship game in Denver.
On that evening in the RCA Dome, in the same city where Florida would win its first national title fifteen years later, the champs from Vegas made the fatal mistake of rolling the ball onto the court and expecting their awesome talent to win out. Larry Johnson didn’t attack the rim, and Rebel point guard Anderson Hunt chucked too many threes. Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV squad, known for its relentless high-energy defense, sat back while Duke stars Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner outworked them for late baskets and free throws. A gifted and dynamic team still came within one made shot of victory, but when the smoke cleared, Vegas sat on the short end of a 79-77 score. The Rebels had a Roman appetite for victory and a repeat national championship, but they lacked the spartan will needed to achieve it. Vegas–the best team at the 1991 Final Four–didn’t repeat because it became soft, lazy and panicky precisely when it needed to flex its muscles. One year’s championship victory be came the next year’s shocking semifinal setback.
Florida would not allow this scenario to unfold once again. The Gators denied UCLA the chance to savor a seminal semifinal shocker and a heaping helping of revenge.
The simple reason? Florida didn’t play with Vegas-style arrogance or white-collar laziness. Unlike UNLV against Duke back in ‘91, the Gators respected UCLA just as much as they did the year before.
Everything didn’t click for Florida in the first half of Saturday night’s showdown in Atlanta. Not even close. Taurean Green didn’t protect the ball. The Gators’ big men didn’t pass the ball crisply or consistently out of doubleteams in the low post. With the Bruins in constant foul trouble, the Gators only managed a six-point halftime lead.
With a casual Vegas mindset, Billy Donovan’s team could have found itself in trouble. Many teams would have looked at the small halftime advantage and regretted the lost opportunity. In an NCAA Tournament where second-half comebacks have been all the rage, Florida had to guard against an emotional letdown in the second 20 minutes against the Bruins.
The X-and-O matchups favored the Gators at the break. So did the foul situation. The benches did, too. Florida had a small scoreboard edge at halftime, but huge advantages in terms of the flow of the game. The Gators were rested, deeper, and in control of UCLA’s offense. With unflagging effort and patient concentration, Florida would win the day.
But that’s easy to say and much harder to do in the rarified air of the Final Four, where the environment is thick with pressure and a crowd of over 40,000 provides a spectacle different from any other basketball game. As Georgetown found out against Ohio State in the day’s first semifinal, the Final Four can be a weird and disorienting place where young 20-year-olds–no matter how talented–can become awed and overwhelmed by the moment. Temporary encounters with frustration or adversity can snowball into crippling stretches of disjointed performance that can hijack a championship chase.
As you can see, the main challenge for Florida entering the second half against UCLA was not found on a chalkboard or in areas of technique or strategy. No, the Gators simply had to display the mental toughness and work ethic that had lifted them past so many severe challenges on the road to Atlanta. Whereas UNLV derailed its repeat bid with a soft second half back in 1991’s second semifinal, Florida needed to come hard and strong at the Bruins to cement its numerous advantages.
Clearly and undeniably, the Gators brought the requisite effort in the second half. A first half that could have flustered and frustrated other clubs only made Florida more forceful after the intermission. The defensive missteps made in the first 20 minutes–particularly going for ball fakes and leaving the floor–were corrected. The turnovers that plagued the Gators in the first half (and which returned in the final few minutes of garbage time) were eliminated. The interior passing improved. The offensive rebounding so central to this team’s success finally emerged. With blue-collar grit and high-intensity hustle at both ends of the floor, the Gators outworked a UCLA club that prides itself on wearing down the opposition.
Yeah, the Gators did indeed step off the gas pedal in this one, but only when the outcome had long been sealed. When the competitive phase of this game was still unfolding, Florida–with its work ethic and a relentlessness that never takes anything for granted–imposed its will. Whereas a bunch of Vegas showhorses spit the bit in a 1991 Final Four rematch against Duke, Florida’s workhorses beat UCLA all over again in the 2007 edition of a Final Four sequel.
So before the Gators get ready to compete for a repeat title in yet another high-stakes battle with Ohio State, just pause for a moment and remember: the repeat that DIDN’T happen is the biggest reason why Florida is now one win away from a landmark accomplishment in the history of college basketball. Instead of relaxing against a familiar opponent the second time around, Florida only upped the intensity level to ensure that trouble would not be Bruin in Atlanta. By marrying white-collar talent and blue-collar effort, the Gators learned from Las Vegas and avoided the fate suffered by Jerry Tarkanian’s team sixteen years ago.
In the end, it makes sense, doesn’t it? These Gators are well-behaved. They love each other, and they do everything the right way, on and off the court. There are no Rebels on this team.
Saturday night in Atlanta, in one of the more historic college basketball games played in quite some time, the Gators made sure they didn’t follow the path of the UNLV Running Rebels. Now, they’re one win away from championship glory.