Behind Noah, Florida plays big up front

Ncaa Men's Final

April 04, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

INDIANAPOLIS — INDIANAPOLIS-- --It's not as if UCLA isn't used to seeing bony, long-limbed, agile 7-footers from New York City dominate the national championship game. The Bruins had the original, Lew Alcindor, nearly 40 years ago. They could have used him last night.

Not to put Florida sophomore Joakim Noah in a class with the man who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and who was in the stands at RCA Dome to see his alma mater try to restart the tradition he helped build. Noah got in UCLA's way, got all over UCLA, got into its head from the start, and got Florida one of the more unexpected, yet completely deserved, national titles in recent memory.

Noah's no Abdul-Jabbar. He's not necessarily the best big man in the past two decades to impose his will on the championship game, but that's how far back you have to go to find one demonstrably better, back as far as Patrick Ewing in 1984.

All Noah is, is the best big man in the 2006 NCAA tournament, and all he was last night was the single most dominant player on the court. He was voted the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, and nobody who watched the game, or even just glanced at the final box score, could disagree.

The box score read 16 points, nine rebounds, three assists and six blocked shots. Except for the record number of blocked shots, those aren't exactly immortal numbers. But national championships do guarantee you immortality, and Noah's presence, in his 7-foot (although he's listed as an inch shorter), 227-pound frame, gave Florida immortality.

It was easy to forget as the final game approached that Noah could actually play, what with his famous father, tennis star Yannick Noah, and his glib, energetic nature. He was one of the many Gators players who said, the day before the title game, that facing the most decorated team in the history of college basketball didn't faze them.

"What does history do to help you win basketball games?" he had said, "and what does tradition do to help you win basketball games?"

Long arms, unnatural quickness and ungodly skills for someone that big and that young - that helps you win. Noah and Florida figured that out as tournament time approached, and that helped the Gators negate their own legacy, that of not having gone past the second round since reaching the 2000 final. Last night, the package helped Florida take control of the game early and keep it.

The Bruins were in trouble less than four minutes into the game, and Noah was the reason. The first Florida points of the game: Noah took a pass on the right side of the lane from fellow sophomore big man/game-changer Al Horford, who was double-teamed on the other side, and laid it in.

The basket that put Florida ahead for good, at 9-6: a Corey Brewer three-pointer from the left side, from Noah, handling a pass near the top of the key and seeing his open teammate.

The first truly nasty rejection by a Gators player: Noah, making Luc Richard Mbah a Moute eat his layup attempt in transition. At the other end, Taurean Green dropped in a jumper. Timeout UCLA with only 3:48 gone in the game, trailing 11-6; the Bruins had managed only two shot attempts at that point, while the Gators had hit five of their first six.

The rest of the night, the Bruins were looking over their shoulders for Noah, and too often they found him. They pulled the string on their shots inside, pump-faked like crazy, passed off from point-blank range, and started shooting from farther and farther out.

Five of his blocks came in the first half. The Bruins' players arms started getting shorter. So did their chances of winning. For a span of nine minutes in the first and second halves, UCLA managed exactly one field goal. By the time they came out of that spell, they were down by 17 points.

That streak began when Noah re-entered the game with seven minutes left in the half. Before the half had ended, he'd contributed another pretty pass to a teammate for a layup, a dunk and not one, not two, but three more rejections. One was on a three-pointer, by the only reliable scorer UCLA had in the first half, Jordan Farmar.

It had to be painful for the Bruins faithful to watch, because doing that to opposing teams was the way they reached the final game. Going up against taller, more athletic teams, hustling, scrapping, battling and eventually strangling them - think games against Memphis in the regional final and LSU in the semifinal - was their forte.

UCLA tried. It played defense against Florida about as well as any team had in the tournament. The Gators just defended UCLA better. They dictated everything in this game.

Noah dictated that for them. He's young, and will only get better. But last night, he was good enough to carry Florida to an unlikely national championship.

Read David Steele's blog at

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