Championship Sandwich! Gators Repeat!

ATLANTA, GA — They are the real Fab Five. Forget those frauds from Michigan whose thuggish legacy is an embarrassed basketball program in deepest and darkest NCAA trouble. The real Fab Five did it the right way and instead of a school forever shamed, the University of Florida has a team for the ages and an ever so delicious, first of its kind, championship sandwich.

Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford, Lee Humphrey and Joakim Noah: remember those names forever. Their legacy is a pair of championships earned by playing basketball the way it was meant to be played. This is a TEAM game and if ever five guys played it the way it was supposed to be played, this is that team. Teams share the ball. Teams play defense. Teams don’t care who gets the points or the headlines as long as the TEAM wins. If you’re going to remember one thing above all else with this marvelous team that Billy Donovan put together and coached to the top of the college basketball mountain, remember that this is the team that will forever define what a team is all about.

The real Fab Five played for the love of the game and the love of each other. Three of them could have bolted after last year’s NCAA title for the NBA and its guaranteed millions of dollars but they wanted to come back and prove that they weren’t just another championship team. They wanted a part of history.

The Gators have a stake in the claim for the best starting five in college basketball history. They can make a serious case that they are one of the best teams ever. Monday night’s 84-75 win over Ohio State at the Georgia Dome makes the Gators the first team to repeat since Duke did it in 1991-92, and it also makes the Gators only the second team since John Wooden retired in 1975 to go two in a row.

What gives this win greater historical significance is that the Gators have a true championship sandwich now — two basketball titles with a football championship in between. That’s a first in the history of college sports.

Ironically, to claim their place in the record book, the Gators had to go through Ohio State — again. Wasn’t it just three months ago that Florida destroyed the Buckeyes on college football’s biggest stage to the tune of 41-14 in the Tostitos BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Arizona?

“I sit up here very, very humbled because I think I was fortunate enough over the last two years to coach a group of guys that has to go down in history as one of the greatest teams of all time,” said Coach Billy Donovan. “I’m not saying they were the most talented. I’m not saying they were flawless, but when you talk about the word team — what that encompasses in terms of unselfishness, sacrifice, playing together — they have got to go down, in my opinion, as one of the best teams to ever play.”

Donovan got no arguments from CBS analyst Billy Packer.

“What they accomplished and how difficult it is to pull it together they have to be right up there with the best teams ever,” said Packer, who’s been on the Final Four scene since he played at Wake Forest in the early 1960s.

Unlike the football encounter where the Gators delivered one body shot after another until Ohio State fell to its knees in total submission, this one got a little dicey toward the end when the Buckeyes trimmed eight points off a 14-point second half Florida lead. But, just when it got close, just when the Buckeyes thought they could come back, the Gators did what they’ve been doing for the last two years and regained their poise.

On college basketball’s grandest stage Monday night, the Gators came through in typical fashion. There wasn’t one single player that came through with what you could call a dominating performance, just the starting five — with a little help from three friends off the bench — doing what they’ve done the past two years. They kept the ball moving until someone got open on the offensive end, made some clutch shots, and delivered another smothering defensive performance on Ohio State’s three-point shooters.

The Gators really didn’t have a lot of answers for Ohio State’s 7-foot freshman phenom Greg Oden, who pushed, shoved and bullied his way to 25 points, but the Gators were more than happy to make Oden work for every two-point shot, particularly since they had the range from the three-point stripe themselves. The Gators were 10-18 from the three-point line (55.6 percent) with Humphrey hitting 4-7, Green 3-3 and Brewer delivering three three-point bombs in the first half.

Ohio State, meanwhile was 2-12 from the three-point line in the first half and only 4-23 for the game. Ivan Harris hit a three with 5:39 in the first half. After that the Buckeyes were firing up Scuds at the basket. They missed their next 12 shots from beyond the arc. By the time Jamar Butler and Mike Conley Jr. got three-pointers to go in the final 37 seconds of the game, it was all over.

In Florida’s run to the NCAA championship, starting with the SEC Tournament three weekends ago, the Gators gave up 37 three-pointers in 146 attempts. That’s 22.5 percent and that’s a good reason why Florida is on top of the mountain today.

The Gators played Ohio State straight up in the post and clamped down on the perimeter. On the inside, the Buckeyes had to work for everything. On the outside, they were stamped out by Florida’s in your face defenders.

“We felt like we could just play straight up in the post,” said Brewer, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Brewer’s worksheet read 13 points, eight rebounds, three steals, one blocked shot and one assist. “Oden is a great player but twos can’t really beat you if you guard the three point-line.”

“We also did a good job of keeping them out of the lane,” said Green, who finished the night with 16 points and six assists. “They’re a good driving team, also. [It was] just a great team effort on the defensive end.”

Brewer earned his Most Outstanding Player trophy by providing the Gators with offensive spark in the first half — three of five from the three-point line and 11 points — and six rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal to spark the defense in the second half. The trophy was meaningful to the 6-9 Brewer, but only because the Gators won the game.

“You know, it’s all about my teammates,” he said. “You know, I give it to each and every one of my teammates if I could break it apart because if it wasn’t for those guys, what’s MOP mean? It’s all about the national championship to be honest.”

Florida closed out the first half on a 16-7 run that included four straight three-pointers — one by Humphrey, one by Brewer and two by Green — but the play that really highlighted what the Gators were all about was when Brewer tipped the ball away from Mike Conley on the left wing, then out-hustled three players to the ball and blew past everyone for a thundering jam with 2:30 to go. Those are the kind of plays that got the Gators out to a 40-29 lead at the half, one that they never relinquished, even though Ohio State did get within six points in the second half.

Ohio State spent the second half playing catch-up, difficult when you can’t hit three-balls, next to impossible when the team you’re trying to catch has an answer for everything you throw at them. Florida’s answers were well-time threes.

Early in the second half when Ohio State was trying to keep it close, Chris Richard’s layup was blocked by Oden but Horford out-hustled the Buckeyes for the rebound and then found Humphrey in the corner with a cross-court pass. Humphrey buried the three from the right corner to stretch Florida’s lead by to 11. He hit another with 10:46 left in the game that kept the momentum going as Florida stretched its lead to 14, 61-47.

“Any time you can hit a string of threes in a row, get a good rebound like Al did, kick it out for a three, it’s good for stopping momentum a little bit,” said Humphrey, who scored 14 points in his final collegiate game and finished his career as the all-time three-point shooter in NCAA Tournament history with 47.

Ohio State fought back to get the deficit under 10, but Humphrey answered again with another long three with 7:47 left in the game. When the Buckeyes cut the lead to 66-60, Green drove home a three-point dagger from the top of the key with 4:51 left.

“Coach always tells us, once you have a crack, let it go, shoot the ball with confidence,” said Green. “When they made runs, I think we did a good job just coming back and knocking down threes.”

It wasn’t completely an outside job although Florida’s 30-12 advantage at the three-point line was truly the difference in the game. Points on the inside were tough because of Oden’s presence. He blocked four shots and caused that many bad ones, but the Gators were able to get inside enough to balance out the outside game.

Horford’s 18-point, 12-rebound performance included a couple of jumpers from the outside, but he challenged Oden enough to score in the paint as well. Senior Chris Richard came off the bench to score eight points, none more impressive than the two he got in Oden’s face with 4:18 left in the game.

“We weren’t going to back down from him,” said Richard, who also snagged eight rebounds. “We challenged him and made him play us. That was an important part of what we did.”

What Richard did was an important part of why the Gators won their second straight championship. He could have started for any team the Gators played in the tournament, including Ohio State, but he came off the bench to do whatever the team needed.

“Chris Richard is a beast,” said Joakim Noah, last year’s Most Outstanding Player. Noah scored only eight points and grabbed just three rebounds in this game, but it never was about individual accomplishment for the charismatic 6-11 junior. It was always about the team and the goal of the team never wavered. Winning was always paramount.

“There is nothing better than winning championships,” he said. “It wasn’t just the national championships. We won an SEC title. We won three SEC tournaments in a row. We have been winning championships. As soon as there was an obstacle in the way, we ended up cutting down nets and that is what it’s all about. This season is over. We won it all this year. Every single time there was a tournament, we won it.”

They won and because they won they should be remembered always as one of the best teams that ever played the game. They won because they had the real Fab Five, not a bunch of impostors whose lasting legacy is all the trouble they caused the University of Michigan.

The real Fab Five finished out on top. The real Fab Five had what it took to be real champions. They had the heart. They had the chemistry. They had the love for each other.

Back in the summer of 2004 when the four juniors (Noah, Brewer, Green and Horford) were freshmen and new on campus, they needed a fifth player to go five-on-give against Florida’s veterans. Humphrey was a throw-in but what a throw-in he was. He gave the O-Fours the shooter they needed and the bond began forming that turned them into the real Fab Five.

One evening when they were returning from Billy Donovan’s house, the real Fab Five rode in Humphrey’s little truck. Everybody was quiet until Humphrey looked at Noah and said, “You know guys, we’re going to be real good.”

Noah thought back to that night as he sat in front of his locker Monday.

“That truck probably doesn’t work anymore but I remember us saying we were going to be pretty good,” said Noah. “It wasn’t so much that we were going to be pretty good but we were just so excited to be playing with each other. We just love playing with each other.

“I remember Corey Brewer saying that if we won a national championship he would walk around butt naked on campus. You know what, he didn’t do it. We would talk about it but I don’t know if anybody really believed but now it’s here. We really did it.”

They really did do it. They put Florida on top of the mountain, the same place last year’s basketball team and this year’s football team occupy.

“When you get to this point you can see how fragile it all is,” said Billy Donovan. “Nobody has it figured how. I sit here humbled and appreciative of being able to be a part of two national championships.”

While the real Fab Five will never be together again — Humphrey graduates and there’s no telling at this point which, if any, of the 0-Fours will come back — Horford said you don’t have to worry that Donovan will bolt to Kentucky.

“He’ll stay,” said Horford. “I’m positive. Me and coach are cool, man. I know.”

And as long as Donovan stays, there will be a chance that the Gators will have another Fab Five that captures the hearts of Gator Nation. Another Fab Five is possible. But there will always be only one REAL Fab Five. They are Humphrey, Brewer, Noah, Green and Horford. Remember them. Remember them forever.

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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.