Down to final 2, all up for grabs

Florida, UCLA respect each other's ability

NCAA men


INDIANAPOLIS -- UCLA coach Ben Howland, whose mantra has always been defense, pulled his glasses down his nose yesterday while he scanned Florida's shooting statistics.

"I'm just amazed as I look at his numbers," Howland said of Florida junior guard Lee Humphrey, who made six three-pointers in Saturday's 73-58 win over George Mason in the Final Four.

"They have a great offensive team. It really is going to be a big challenge for us to be able to try to defend such skilled players, good passers. Everybody can shoot it."

While the magic of Mason disappeared with the Patriots' noon charter flight out of Indianapolis yesterday, the two teams that remained are among the country's best - one in offense, the other in defense. UCLA and Florida, two young teams that many said were still a year away from a season like this, will be pitted against each other for the national championship at 9:21 tonight at RCA Dome.

Florida (32-6), which has played in the final only once before and is in search of its first title, is scoring an average of 78.5 points this season. UCLA (32-6), which is playing for its first title since 1995 and has the storied tradition of an unprecedented 11 championships, has the 10th-best scoring defense in the country, holding opponents to 58.6 points.

The Bruins beat LSU, 59-45, in Saturday's second semifinal. The Tigers' points total was the second lowest in a Final Four game since the addition of the shot clock in the 1985-86 season. The Bruins have held three of their five tournament opponents to 45 points or fewer.

"They are very, very disciplined with the way they play defense," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They help each other extremely well. They have a great ability to be very physical, [outmuscle] you, take you off cuts.

"I think that they'll be as good of a defensive team tomorrow night that we've played all year."

Florida has beaten South Alabama, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Georgetown, Villanova and George Mason in the tournament. The Gators have won 10 straight, but with the exception of Georgetown 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert, none of them had the kind of size, strength or athleticism of UCLA.

UCLA is on a 12-game winning streak and has allowed 53.9 points a game during that stretch. In addition to worrying about Humphrey's strong perimeter shooting, the Bruins will also have to watch Joakim Noah, Florida's 6-11 pony-tailed center. Noah has the third-best field-goal percentage in the country (.629) and is averaging 16.2 points and 9.6 rebounds in the tournament.

Humphrey is shooting 45.8 percent from three-point range this season.

"One of the worst feelings you can have as a coach is when you see a guy rise up and take a three-point shot and know it's got no chance of going in," Donovan said. "The one thing about Lee is, when he lets it go, you feel that it's got a pretty good chance of going in. I'm sure UCLA is very conscious of Lee, the way he has shot the basketball."

Before the Florida players were sent off to their individual interview sessions with reporters yesterday, Donovan pulled them together for a quick briefing about the Bruins. Not everyone stuck around to watch the second game Saturday night, and the teams were back at the dome by 11 a.m. yesterday for practices and interviews. There wasn't much time for scouting, and these teams have never played each other.

"Throughout the tournament we heard about their defense," Humphrey said. "We saw a little bit of the LSU game last night, and they played very well. We know they have a lot of great athletes on their team, and they make defense their staple.

"I think our biggest strength as a team, offensively, is we have a lot of guys who can score," he said. "Our team is very unselfish, and we generally have a high number of assists and pass the ball. I think for us to be successful, we need to do that again [tonight]."

While the Gators are trying to establish themselves among college basketball's elite - and fighting the reputation of a football school in the process - UCLA's players are playing to restore the tradition begun by coach John Wooden.

"Well, I know they have great tradition; they had a lot of great players go through that program," Noah said. "But I don't think that helps you win the game [tonight]."

Howland disagreed.

"Absolutely it means something," he said. "We're playing for ourselves. These kids are playing for one another. We're also playing for the program and for UCLA. There's no program that has more tradition or rich history of winning than UCLA.

"I think that obviously is a motivator," he said. "I'm sure for Florida it doesn't matter. For us, it matters."


Florida (32-6) vs. UCLA (32-6), 9:21, chs. 13, 9

Line: Florida by 1 1/2

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