March 26, 2006
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - With Florida minutes away from the Final Four, Joakim Noah threw his head back, screamed and pounded his chest as if to announce Gators' arrival.
Noah and his sophomore teammates dispatched the last No. 1 seed standing, and are suddenly heading to Indianapolis - perhaps as the favorite.
The young, third-seeded Gators beat a steep learning curve with a 75-62 win over top-seeded Villanova in the Minneapolis Regional final Sunday, and are going to the Final Four a lot sooner than anyone could have thought.
Noah had 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks, and fellow sophomore Al Horford added 12 points and 15 rebounds.
"When you're young and you don't play in these situations, you just don't know," Noah said. "I think the more we play in these situations, the better we're going to become."
Point guard Taurean Green scored 19 points for Florida (31-6), which will face No. 11 seed George Mason next Saturday in the national semifinals. No. 2 seed UCLA plays No. 4 seed LSU in the other game.
This marks the first time since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985 that no top-seeded team advanced to the Final Four - and the second time in tournament history.
"We're the Gator boys. The Gator boys are hot right now," Noah said.
Villanova star Randy Foye fouled out with 28.9 seconds left and walked slowly to the bench to hug his coaches and teammates, as tears streamed down his face. He had 25 points for the Wildcats (28-5).
"Like Randy said, this is going to hurt for a while," said Allan Ray, who had 11 points on 5-for-19 shooting.
"We've won games that way. We've shot poorly and then got on the offensive boards and played defense," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "They were just too good."
This was Florida's eighth straight trip to the tournament under coach Billy Donovan, but so many of his previous teams - minus the national runner-up in 2000 - failed to fulfill their postseason potential.
This tight group of sophomores, led by the fiery, ponytailed Noah, vowed to change that after bonding during their first few weeks on campus. Despite a second-round loss in the tournament last year to Villanova, the Gators are a nation-best 15-1 in March over the last two years.
"They were unselfish. They wanted to win, wanted to learn. They wanted to work, and they wanted to get better," Donovan said.
Noah and Horford were too tough for the Wildcats to use much of the flashy, four-guard attack for which they are known. Foul trouble made it impossible in the second half, as Foye drew his third at the 18-minute mark, Kyle Lowry picked up his fourth with 14 minutes left and Ray's third came soon after.
A smooth, sweeping layup across the lane by Ray cut the Gators' lead to 54-47 with 7 1/2 minutes to go. But after a foul by Will Sheridan, a timeout, and two more free throws by Noah, it was a nine-point edge for Florida.
The cap came when Horford, slowly backing down with the ball in the post, spun and dropped an easy pass on the baseline to a streaking Noah - who powered up and threw down a rim-bending dunk for a 66-54 lead with less than 3 1/2 minutes left.
"I can't say I'm surprised," said Gators reserve forward Chris Richard. "We've been playing together a while and impressed a lot of people in the summer. I'm not going to pinch myself. You know, I'm not cocky, but I knew we had a great team."
Before that, every time the Gators opened up a healthy lead the Wildcats came right back.
Ray picked up an early technical foul during a brief tiff for holding the ball in the face of Florida's Walter Hodge, and the Wildcats lost some energy after that - falling behind by as many as 12.
A foul by Ray a little later in the half sent him to the bench, and put Green on the line for three shots. Green made two of them to give the Gators a 31-21 lead with 5:46 left before halftime.
Despite shooting 21 percent from the field (8-for-38), Villanova refused to limp into the locker room with a double-digit deficit - as it did two days before in a third-round win over Boston College.
Florida became a bit careless, started getting frustrated with the officials and struggled when the Wildcats used their full-court zone press with Mike Nardi pestering Lee Humphrey at the top.
The Gators had 10 first-half turnovers, failed to make a field goal in the final 4:39, had given up 16 offensive rebounds - and all of a sudden the lead was down to 35-30 at the break.
"That's generally a recipe for disaster, but because we defended the 3-point line that gave us an opportunity," Donovan said.
Since their national championship in 1985 as a No. 8 seed, the Wildcats have been trying to get back to the Final Four. With seniors Foye and Ray leading the way, this Villanova squad was no underdog.
Ranked near the top of the AP poll all season, these Wildcats were favorites to get to the Final Four.
"Everybody was crushed," Wright said. "I told them to just cry. Everybody let it out. It's supposed to hurt. I'm so proud of them. I know it hurts for everybody, but I really want to make sure this group feels great about itself."