Standing up to Gators, Oden writes own legacy

April 03, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

ATLANTA — ATLANTA-- --It was the end of two roads last night at the Georgia Dome - the dynasty and the coulda-been dynasty.

Florida was too good, too deep, too much for Ohio State. And yes, back-to-back national championships in this day and age of college basketball constitutes a dynasty.

Give it up for the Gators, then, because it has been awhile, 15 years, since a repeat happened, and it will be awhile before it happens again.

But give it up, too, for the best center of his time. Greg Oden, at 19, became a man last night. Unfortunately, he became a man who walked slowly, with a contorted and downcast face, off the confetti-strewn court, after the victorious Gators players and supporters paused in their celebrations to hug him, slap his back, console him.

You couldn't help but think: This is the last time he's walking off a college court, and he left everything he had on it.

Oden was the reason it was as much of a game as it was. He finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds, blocked four shots and altered loads of others, and threatened to foul out all four Gators sent out to defend him, from last March's Most Outstanding Player, Joakim Noah, to barely used freshman Marreese Speights.

"We pretty much got every and anything out of Greg tonight," said his college and high school teammate, Mike Conley Jr. "But our team needed to play as well as he was tonight, by the way Florida was playing."

It was the finest performance by a player on the losing team since Houston's Akeem Olajuwon lost back-to-back finals in 1983 and '84. Not bad company to keep.

Poor Ohio State has no choice but to hope against hope that Oden loves going to class, riding go-carts and checking out coeds as much as he says he does.

If he's sincere (or, more accurately, stays sincere past the draft filing deadline), write it in ink: Ohio State will be the 2008 NCAA champion.

Put a few more prime-time players around him - guys other than Conley - to match the waves of talent Florida threw at them, at least enough guys to let them survive Conley's first-half foul trouble, and the Buckeyes might have cut down the nets last night.

But everyone knew what was going on. At halftime, when Oden had established himself as a force in vain, John Thompson, working the national radio broadcast, said, "That's the best I've seen Oden play." He paused. "But Florida's got too many horses."

Florida couldn't rein in Oden. The Gators didn't have to in order to win, but still, he was more than they could handle. From the standpoint of purely appreciating a prodigy in the raw, what Oden did in keeping Ohio State in that game was exhilarating.

In return, the way Florida held off the Buckeys and displayed its own dominance was a credit to its players and what they did. For the second straight year, the Gators were the definition of "team," as evidenced by the numbers - four players in double figures, three players almost evenly splitting their 10 three-pointers.

And it was a team that chose not to rest on its laurels, go its separate ways and celebrate its one achievement.

The super sophomores of the 2006 title team - Noah, Al Horford and this tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Corey Brewer - chose to challenge history, and cashed in, in every sense of the phrase.

"This is what we came back to school for. This is what we are all about, the University of Florida and winning championships," Brewer said, a nod to the Bowl Championship Series winning football team.

The Gators were better the second time around, beat better teams in this tournament, this Final Four and this final. They excelled with the bull's-eye on their backs. If they leave now, they leave with an exalted place in the sport's history.

Yet one could make a case for Ohio State's game last night being good enough to win a national championship against any other team in the country.

Oden couldn't shut down everybody, dunk over everybody, dip and glide and slide under and around everybody. He couldn't catch Lee Humphrey, who threw in three-pointers every time the Gators needed him to, just as he had a year ago in the Final Four. Same for Taurean Green, whose three with 4:50 left - just after Oden's two free throws, on Chris Richard's fourth foul - turned a six-point deficit, a possible swing in momentum and an awakened Ohio State crowd into the light at the end of Florida's tunnel.

Eventually, Ohio State was buried the way Florida buried two years' worth of tournament opponents, the way the confetti buried the revelers. And buried Oden.

He'll rise from it. He might just be on his way out of Columbus when he does.

He earned it. Just as much as the Gators earned their legacy.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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