Gators rewarded for sticking together

Tara Sullivan
The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) (MCT)

Florida's Al Horford cuts down a piece of the
net following an 84-75 victory over Ohio State
in the NCAA Basketball Championship, Monday,
April 2, 2007. (Jim Prisching/Chicago Tribune/MCT)

ATLANTA - The Florida Gators swore to us all they never allowed themselves to imagine this moment. Live for now, they insisted to each other. Enjoy the journey without worrying about the destination, they pleaded. We came back together because of our love for each other, not our drive to match history.

And yet the moment came, an 84-75 victory over Ohio State crowning this remarkable group of young men NCAA basketball champions for the second straight year. And when it was over, together with coach Billy Donovan they danced on the Georgia Dome floor, climbed into the Georgia Dome seats and embraced amid the Georgia Dome chaos.

Relief, joy, happiness, amazement. The season-long swirl of emotions ending in one final, ferocious moment of basketball domination.

As the Florida fans bid adieu to the vanquished with cries of "Just like football," the players reveled in their school's third straight major college championship, the BCS football trophy owned by the football team also taken at the expense of the Buckeyes. So into their people these basketball champions climbed, slapping high fives and sharing hugs for so long that announcers had to summon them back to the awards podium.

Heck, they earned the right to do whatever they wanted. What Florida accomplished Monday night in Atlanta was nothing short of amazing. There is a reason it has taken 15 years to find another team good enough to repeat as national champions the way Duke did in 1991-92. The game has changed so much since then.

"There's so much more attention to everything nowadays," said Bob Hurley Sr., whose son Bobby was the point guard for those Blue Devil teams.

How the landscape has changed. The NCAA tournament, always one of the most hyped sports events of the year, has only grown in stature. As the game has grown, so has the number of players, with schools that never had a shot at program-changing recruits now reeling them in. Mid-majors are crashing the recruiting party more than ever before and the power conferences can send five, six and seven teams to the tournament each year.

And even with the NBA's misguided attempts to continue using the college system as a de facto minor league – most recently by denying high school graduates the right to go straight into the NBA draft – the lure of the money of the pros remains a drain on the college teams. Not that players shouldn't go, but when they do, teams that would have had experience don't.

Think of this year's Connecticut Huskies, who failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2002 despite reaching the Elite Eight a season ago. Josh Boone and Marcus Williams, both underclassmen on that team, are playing for the Nets now and Rudy Gay with the Memphis Grizzlies. The Gators' junior trio of Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and Al Horford bucked that trend, coming back together, lured by the prospect of making history.

And with relentless drive, they did it, burying Ohio State with a flurry of three pointers (10-for-18), waves of skilled players (eight different ones scored) and amazing rebounding aggression (38-28).

Taking the lead of their coach, whose every-day message was to `live in the moment,' the players barely acknowledged their potential brush with history in the days leading up to Monday's game. Donovan, so adept at navigating his players through the season-long challenges of maintaining focus while not crumbling under the pressure of expectation, made history himself. Only 11 coaches before him have won two titles (the last to join was UConn's Jim Calhoun), which means that no matter whether Donovan stays at Florida or goes to Kentucky or the NBA, his legacy is secure.

As unbelievable as it seemed that the three players delayed their NBA dream this time last year, it would be downright astonishing should they do it again. And without them, the Gators are unlikely to make a run at three straight titles. Perhaps that will make it easier for Donovan to walk out the door – although the crowd serenades of "Billy, Billy, Billy" might make it more difficult - whatever the future holds, the past is unchangeable.

For the group of Gators on the floor Monday, for the three who made a pact to do this again together, the joy and relief of their moment of repeat triumph owns a piece of their hearts forever. It could be another 15 years before this happens again, but the Gators were clearly intent on it not being 30.

"Florida is such a tough team," Bobby Hurley said earlier this week. "I always felt the hard part was getting to the Final Four for the second time. Getting through the early rounds without getting knocked off was the hard part. I think Florida is so close now they can smell it."

Turns out he was right.

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