Repeat after me: A lesson learned is a win earned
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 2:48 a.m.
The steps have been taken one by one since they left Indianapolis last April. Some have been small, some long strides. Occasionally, there has been a stumble in the wrong direction.
On Saturday night, the Florida basketball team broad-jumped into the NCAA Championship game.
In a familiar setting in the Georgia Dome, the Gators landed right back where they were a year ago by beating the team they beat in the final a year ago. UCLA had no answer for Florida in the second half and went home a 10-point loser.
It could have been worse.
And it can get better Monday night.
Getting to a championship game is the hard part. Winning it? Hey, only two teams have a shot and Florida beat the other one by 26 in December.
It's all about opportunity, and Florida has earned this one.
These Gators have been through these physical battles before, in conference play and earlier in this tournament. But I can tell you from sitting at courtside, this was the most physical of Florida's wins.
Every pass to the low post was double-teamed and beaten up. And while Florida was trying to figure out exactly what would be called and not be called, the offense suffered.
But they found ways to score enough against the Bruins defense. They lived on the 3-point line until they needed to go back inside. They did what was necessary.
“We knew our posts guys,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, “were not going to get any shots at the basket.”
Donovan knew it would be another grinder. He studied the game last year against UCLA only briefly and didn't show it to his players because, “to go back and look at that game would not have been helpful. They had to understand that this was a different team and a better team.”
The thing about this Gator team is that there were so many people that thought it would be easy to get here, because it was so easy last year. When they have had to grind out a win, they haven't looked like that efficient team from a year ago.
But the opponents have a lot to do with that. And I don't believe Florida would be playing in the final Monday with last year's team.
This team has learned how to be physical, how to be patient, how to deal with fouls that aren't called and phantom fouls that are. And the Gators have needed every lesson learned throughout this tournament with games against Purdue and Butler and then UCLA.
“Those games helped,” said point guard Taurean Green. “We've done a good job all year adjusting to how teams are playing us.”
This tournament run hasn't always been as eye-pleasing as last year's ... until you look at the final scores. Which, last time I checked, is the bottom line.
And when it was about as ugly as a hairless cat in the first 10 minutes of this game, they shrugged it off and kept working. They refused to allow second shots for UCLA in the first half, getting 20 of 21 rebounds on the defensive boards.
That half once again showed the versatility of this team — the Gators led by six without Al Horford or Joakim Noah having a field goal attempt.
Instead, it was Corey Brewer lighting up the night with four 3-pointers in the second half.
“Corey always says his 3-point percentage is down during the season,” Green said. “But then comes tourney time, watch it go up. He was big.”
This was a game that was supposed to be about Florida's inside presence, but it was some big 3-pointers at the start of the second half that made it comfortable for UF. Then, it was about the bigs.
So exasperated was UCLA coach Ben Howland that he ran out of timeouts with 11 minutes left in the half.
The word “Florida” must make Howland and his players flinch. Didn't this look an awful lot like last year's final?
Brewer harassing Arron Afflalo and then chirping at him after every stop. And this time it was Brewer doing a little dance after the game ended.
“This is all about winning,” said Brewer, who celebrated each of his teammates' second-half scores with passion. “As long as we're winning, I'm happy.”
UCLA coming in with the reputation for defense but being stifled by a Florida defense that is underrated.
Florida pulling away in the second half.
All that was missing was the dunkfest down the stretch.
The difference, of course, is that there is still a game to play this time around.
Florida vs. Ohio State for the national championship.
Can they play it in Arizona?
Contact Pat Dooley at 374-5053 or email@example.com. Dooley's columns appear Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
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