The winning edge
Horford's heroics push No. 1 Gators into Midwest final
Posted: Friday March 23, 2007 11:31PM; Updated: Saturday March 24, 2007 2:42PM
ST. LOUIS -- Joakim Noah sat in front of his locker Friday night, sweaty, smiling and still breathing a little heavy. One reporter after another wanted to know the specifics of Florida's latest NCAA tourney scare in which the defending champs found themselves tied with pesky underdog Butler with less than three minutes to go, but Noah was feeling a tad more philosophical.
"This is the reason people love this tournament - there's so much emotion," said the Gators' junior star. "This isn't the NBA. You're not playing a seven-game series. The best team doesn't always win."
The best team almost didn't win Friday's Sweet 16 game, coming within minutes of suffering what would have gone down in the annals as a colossal upset -- but what the participants themselves viewed simply as a dogfight between two upper-echelon teams. For 37-plus minutes, the undersized and less-athletic Bulldogs played the vaunted Gators to a literal standstill -- frustrating Noah, frazzling swingman Corey Brewer, holding down sharpshooter Lee Humphrey and generally wreaking havoc with their trademark grinding tempo.
It wasn't until the 6-foot-9 Al Horford tracked down a loose ball, slowly and methodically backed down overmatched defender Brandon Crone, hit a lay-up, drew Crone's fifth foul and hit his free throw to put Florida up 57-54 with 2:37 left that Florida finally seemed to assert itself as the bigger, badder combatant. Even then, the Gators needed a couple more doses of good fortune -- including Butler sharpshooter A.J. Graves missing just his eighth free throw of the season -- to finally wrap up a hard-earned 65-57 victory.
Just to punctuate things, however, Horford, who finished with 16 points, seven rebounds and four blocks, leapt up and stuffed Julian Betko's lay-up attempt with 19 seconds remaining, allowing Gators fans to finally let out a sigh of relief and prompting Brewer to wag a celebratory pointer finger.
"Right now, it's just about advancing and moving on," said Noah. "We don't want to go home. We're scared to go home."
The Gators may be content just to survive and advance, but tourney followers around the country will surely look for deeper meaning from Florida's second straight closer-than-expected victory over a significantly lower-seeded opponent (ninth-seeded Purdue led Florida with 7:08 to go in last weekend's second round before the Gators prevailed). Is it a case of Florida not playing to its capability or having to fend off lion's efforts from its opponents?
Head coach Billy Donovan has spent the entire season attempting to deflect the enormous expectations surrounding his team and emphasizing the inherent difficulty of trying to achieve what no team has been able to in 15 years -- a national title repeat. His tune did not change following Friday's close call.
"I think because we went through the tournament [last year] with such a large disparity of scores, everybody thinks that's supposed to happen again; and if it doesn't happen again, we're not playing well," said Donovan. "The thing you've got to look at is, teams have had over a year to prepare for us. Teams are much more familiar with us because of the exposure from the national championship. Last year, it was still 'Who are these guys?'
"I don't know if enough credit has been given to Purdue and/or Butler for the way they've played. I mean, we're not going to be a thing of beauty. I don't think anything is a thing of beauty."
No, Friday night's game was a thing of beauty, and yet, in many aspects, Florida accomplished exactly what it might have hoped. By constantly rotating defenders -- including sending Noah and Horford out on the perimeter -- the Gators managed to hold Graves, a 17.1-points-per-game scorer, to 0-of-6 shooting in the first half, 4-of-13 for the game (including 1-of-6 3-pointers) and 11 points. Thanks to a season-high 5-of-8 3-pointers from point guard Taurean Green, Florida actually shot slightly better from outside (8-of-19) than Butler (7-of-19), whose bread-and-butter is the trey.
But what came as a surprise is the way the Bulldogs -- despite lacking a player taller than 6-7 on its roster - managed to neutralize Noah and Horford inside for most of the game, outscoring the Gators 22-14 in the paint. Noah, in particular, looked visibly frustrated on numerous occasions as he got off just four field-goal attempts all night (but did hit 9-of-11 free throws). Horford was 8-of-10 from the stripe.
"The one thing about their team that maybe goes unnoticed is they're extremely physical, and they're as good as anybody we've played at dislodging the post and banging you off the post," said Donovan. "I thought our big guys kept their patience."
No one more so than Horford, who, when the game was on the line, came up with that huge three-point play against Crone. The sequence seemed to unfold almost in slow motion, and it seemed evident to nearly everyone in the building what was about to happen when Horford grabbed the ball. Nevertheless, in a sign of just how tough a night it was, Horford admitted afterward his first instinct was to kick the ball back outside to Brewer -- until Brewer signaled to him to "go score, go score!"
"I saw the guy guarding him [Crone], and he was like 6-5 [actually 6-6]," said Noah. "I thought, 'What's the use of kicking out when I know he can score anytime he wants to.' So I was like, go ahead. We needed a big bucket."
It was Horford and Brewer who also hit big shots down the stretch in last week's Purdue win. And with this team, if it wasn't those two, it could just as easily have been Humphrey or Green.
It hasn't been easy, but Florida has made its way back to the Elite Eight -- where it will face yet another opponent it will universally be favored to beat. The tourney's No. 1 overall seed might not be dominating people, yet they remain as good a pick as any to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
"We know we've got to come with a different focus each round, because it gets harder and harder," said Brewer. "Each team is going to give you its best shot because it wants to win just as bad as you."
In other words, it'd be a whole lot easier if this were a seven-game series.