Gators feast on final No. 1 seed

Florida 75 Villanova 62

Minneapolis Regional

Ncaa Tournament

March 27, 2006|By JOE GERGEN

Minneapolis -- Florida, a team that starts four sophomores and a junior, completed a stunning weekend in the NCAA tournament by eliminating the final No. 1 seed and turning the Final Four into the Indianapolis Open.

By overpowering Villanova, 75-62, yesterday, the Gators advanced to the national championship semifinals for the first time since 2000, coincidentally the last time they were held at the RCA Dome. They will meet George Mason in the first game of a Saturday doubleheader at 6:07 p.m.

Joakim Noah and Al Horford, the Florida post players who are the sons of professional athletes, dominated the interior against the smaller Wildcats. Each grabbed 15 rebounds and they combined for 33 points, seven blocks and two assists.

Villanova's only chance against the Gators was to shoot well. Instead, the .274 field-goal percentage and .174 three-point percentage was the worst of the season for the Wildcats (28-5). For the second time this weekend, All-American Randy Foye had to take the offense on his shoulders. He scored a game-high 25 points, but it wasn't enough against a balanced Florida offense with four players in double figures.

The victory by the Southeastern Conference champions assured a Final Four without a single top seed, the first time that has happened in the tournament since 1980.

"If you started the tournament over today," Florida coach Billy Donovan said, "you would probably have four different teams. That's how close this thing is now."

As it is, the Gators (31-6) are one of two Southeastern Conference teams that will report to Indianapolis. UCLA, an 11-time winner, will represent the Pacific-10 and George Mason will carry the unlikely banner of the Colonial Athletic Association. For the first time since the formation of the Big East in 1979-80, that conference, the ACC and the Big Ten all were shut out of college basketball's showcase.

Villanova's mantra all season had been to let "small and quick go after big and strong." The trouble was that Florida's big men, the 6-11 Noah and the 6-9 Horford, were as swift and agile as guards. The Wildcats couldn't beat them down court for easy baskets and they couldn't knock down the few open treys they were granted. Villanova hit only four of 23 attempts from behind the arc, including 1-for-7 by both Allan Ray and Mike Nardi.

Ray, an All-Big East performer who struggled in shooting 3-for-15 against Boston College on Friday night, came up empty again. He was just 5-for-19 from the field and he didn't reach double figures in scoring until there were 65 seconds remaining in the game.

"Their defense did a great job," said Ray, one of three heralded seniors who played their final game in a Villanova uniform. "Every shot was contested. They made sure we took tough shots. Florida matched everything we did." Only once in the second half did it appear the Wildcats were prepared to overtake Florida. After falling behind 39-30 just after intermission, Villanova closed to 45-42 on a pull-up jumper by Foye.

The Wildcats had two chances to reverse the momentum when Horford traveled in the backcourt and then Corey Brewer committed a turnover.

But Ray failed on a drive and Foye missed a three.

Taurean Green, the Florida point guard who is the son of former New York Knick Sidney Green, then banked in a floater and Brewer and Noah, the son of former tennis champion Yannick Noah, each sank a pair of free throws.

Thereafter, the Gators had an answer for every Villanova thrust.

Florida wasn't even ranked in the Top 25 preseason poll after the graduation of David Lee and the early defections of Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh. Although the returning players were more athletic and more coachable, their most distinguishing characteristic was their youth. "I didn't know if we had enough experience," Donovan said.

But their talent and enthusiasm certainly compensated and yesterday they qualified for the Final Four by beating the seasoned team that ousted them in the second round of the 2005 NCAA tournament. "We ran into a team that played better basketball today," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "We're going to suck up this hurt tonight, but I want to make sure my guys feel great about themselves. They gave everything they had."

Joe Gergen writes for Newsday.

FLORIDA-Noah 4-8 13-15 21, Brewer 4-7 2-3 11, Horford 6-12 0-0 12, Humphrey 3-12 0-0 8, Green 3-9 12-13 19, Hodge 0-2 0-0 0, Richard 1-2 0-0 2, Huertas 1-2 0-0 2, Moss 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-54 27-31 75. VILLANOVA-Foye 7-18 9-10 25, Ray 5-19 0-0 11, Sheridan 0-6 1-2 1, Lowry 1-9 1-1 3, Nardi 2-11 3-4 8, Cunningham 1-2 0-1 2, Clark 1-2 0-0 2, Fraser 1-4 7-7 9, Anderson 0-2 1-2 1, Benn 0-0 0-0 0, Charles 0-0 0-0 0, Dunleavy 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-73 22-27 62. Half-Florida 35-30. 3-point goals-Florida 4-17 (Humphrey 2-9, Brewer 1-2, Green 1-4, Hodge 0-1, Huertas 0-1), Villanova 4-23 (Foye 2-8, Ray 1-7, Nardi 1-7, Anderson 0-1). Fouled out-Brewer, Foye, Lowry. Rebounds-Florida 53 (Horford, Noah 15), Villanova 40 (Foye 8). Assists-Florida 14 (Green, Humphrey 4), Villanova 8 (Nardi 4). Total fouls-Florida 22, Villanova 24. A-21,613.

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