Posted: Tuesday April 4, 2006 2:36AM; Updated: Tuesday April 4, 2006 10:25AM
In the span of 10 minutes, Noah & Co. had the Bruins -- winners of 32 games this season -- as intimidated as a new kid on the first day of school.
"We knew going in they were great shot blockers, and we talked about going straight up with the ball and not fading away," a teary-eyed Mata said afterward. "I guess we were anxious to put the ball up, because they were blocking everything."
After riding their defense to a 36-25 halftime advantage, Florida went on the offensive after intermission. That's when Noah and Horford truly took center stage, notching eight thunderous dunks between them, including a particularly demoralizing play with 15:15 remaining when Noah, seemingly trapped near the free throw line, put the ball on floor, cut hard to the left block and slammed it home like a guard on the break.
At one point during the second-half onslaught, Noah took time out to blow a kiss to one of the UCLA cheerleaders under the basket. "They were talking a lot of trash -- it was crazy," he said afterward. "It hurts when you have so many beautiful girls out there telling you how ugly you are.... The best thing I could do was just blow a kiss by, and maybe they'd like me."
Don't feel bad for Joakim -- he's got no shortage of female admirers back in Gainesville these days. Not bad for a guy who averaged 3.5 points a game last season.
Rarely has a college basketball player achieved such a meteoric rise. In an age when future stars start getting notice in the seventh grade, Noah managed to arrive in Gainesville with no fanfare and had few opportunities to change that as a freshman. Even for much of this year's regular season, he remained largely a novelty, known more for his famous lineage than his talents and still viewed largely as a "project." He appeared on no All-America teams.
By February, most Florida fans had come to regard him as the team's best player, but it wasn't until this NCAA tournament that Noah truly exploded. His 29 blocks in the six games were just five fewer than what he posted in the entire 16-game SEC season (34).
"Last year he didn't get much [playing time]," said Green. "This year he's worldwide famous."
Get used to seeing the face the UCLA cheerleaders called ugly. It's going to be with us for a long, long time.