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As the FINAL MINUTES TICKED DOWN AND FLORIDA ground its way through an 85?77 Elite Eight victory over Oregon, the demonstrative Joakim Noah could be heard on the court shouting, "Keep hating! Keep hating!" Asked to explain afterward, Noah unleashed a minivent he'd apparently been holding in for the better part of four months: "Throughout the year it's felt like everyone has something [negative] to say [about us], and you know what? Sometimes that's draining. You're under a microscope after winning a national championship, and I understand that, but it's still draining. People can say what they want about me or this team, but we're back in the Final Four."
The Gators returned to the Final Four, all right, but not before a pair of pesky underdogs gave the defending champs a run for their money in St. Louis. Florida nearly blew a 10-point lead against the Ducks by going the final eight minutes without a field goal and watching 86% free throw shooter Taurean Green miss two foul shots in the final 31 seconds. Two nights earlier the Gators found themselves tied at 54 against undersized, less athletic Butler with just 2:37 remaining, when the 6' 10" Al Horford finally asserted the Gators' physical superiority by tracking down a loose ball, slowly and methodically backing down overmatched defender Brandon Crone, hitting a layup and drawing Crone's fifth foul. Even then the Gators needed a couple of more doses of good fortune—including Butler sharpshooter A.J. Graves's missing just his eighth free throw of the season—to finally wrap up a hard-earned 65?57 victory.
"It's so hard to get to a Final Four. There is no easy road," said Florida coach Billy Donovan. "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. 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?' We've had to do it a little bit differently."
The Florida players were well aware of the difficulty of their mission. Despite having already experienced every type of championship imaginable the previous two years, they celebrated on the court after the Oregon game for nearly a half hour. They mingled with their families and supporters. They donned Gator beads around their necks. As Donovan ascended the ladder to cut down the last strand of the net, the "Oh-Fours"—juniors Noah, Horford, Green and Corey Brewer—sat together on the bench and posed for pictures. "It's a relief," a smiling Brewer said of advancing to Atlanta. "We've been under the microscope all year—'Can they make it back to the Final Four?' 'They're the favorites, but I think they're going to be upset in this round.' Now, we're back in the Final Four."
The Gators were heavily favored in their Sweet 16 game against the Midwest region's fifth seed Butler, a notorious giant-killer from the Horizon League that had beaten the likes of Indiana, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Gonzaga during the regular season and upset Maryland in the second round. The day before the game, Donovan warned reporters against labeling the Bulldogs a Cinderella, saying, "We do not view Butler as an underdog." Sure enough, the Bulldogs were game from the get-go, successfully lulling Florida into their preferred half-court tempo and riding three Pete Campbell three-pointers to grab an early 27?18 lead. By rotating defenders and often sending the 6' 11" Noah and 6' 9" Brewer out to the perimeter, the Gators' defense was able to silence star Butler guard Graves throughout the first half. Florida went on a 17?2 run to end the first half, capped by Green's fadeaway three-pointer at the buzzer to go up 35?29.
The Bulldogs did not go away, regaining the lead 48?47 on another Campbell trey with 7:58 remaining. But in crunch time, the Gators pounded it into their bigs, Horford and Noah, who continually got to the foul line, draining a combined 17 of 21 free throws on the night. None was more important than the one Horford made to complete the three-point play that put Florida up 57?54 and signaled Crone's exit. The sequence seemed to unfold almost in slow motion, and it must have been 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!"
After wearing down Butler with the powerful Horford and Noah, one might have assumed the Gators would do the same against a faster but smallish Oregon team. Instead, with the Ducks choosing to swarm Florida's big men, the Gators turned to the perimeter prowess of Green (21 points) and guard Lee Humphrey (23). Humphrey was so hot in the first half that his three-pointer from the top of the key with 4:12 left actually broke the net, causing an 11-minute delay in which an arena employee climbed a ladder to patch the hole.
Much like Butler, Oregon hung close to the Gators until late in the second half before Humphrey gained Florida some separation. With just less than nine minutes left, he popped a long three-pointer to give his team its biggest lead to that point, 64?57. Then with 8:16 to play, the Gators had a sequence that illustrated perfectly just how vexing their inside-outside combination can be. Humphrey took possession of the ball just within the arc and made a move as if he was going to shoot. Instead he passed inside to Noah, who kicked it back out the instant the nearest defender made a move. Humphrey, who had flashed to the corner, took Noah's pass and hit one of his seven treys for the game to put his team up 67?57, letting out a little howl afterward. "I got several threes tonight off kick-outs from one of our big guys," said Humphrey, who against Butler two nights earlier had barely been a factor. "That's what makes our team so great, everybody's unselfish. They look for you."
The other thing that makes Florida so good is its defense. Against Butler, the Gators made a point of using Noah and Brewer out on the perimeter to shut down the Bulldogs' guards. This time, knowing Oregon would be looking to shoot the three early and often, the Gators had their guards hug the perimeter, practically ceding the lane to slashing Ducks guard Aaron Brooks (who scored 27 points) but limiting Oregon—which came in averaging 9.4 made treys per game—to 3 of 10 threes in the first half and just 5 of its first 19. Most notably, Sweet 16 hero Tajuan Porter missed his first 10 field goal attempts and finished just 2 of 10 from beyond the arc. "They always had a defender on me," said Porter. "Sometimes it was a longer or taller defender. They had pretty good shot pressure."
Meanwhile, Florida—led by Noah's 14 rebounds—cleaned up on the glass, outrebounding the Ducks 15 to 8 on the offensive end and 39?24 overall, and causing foul problems for Oregon forwards Malik Hairston and Maarty Leunen. "We've always been a team that's tried to take what the defense gives us, and they did a real good job getting inside on Joakim and Al," said Donovan. "It was a game where our bigs didn't score a lot of points but got their front line in foul trouble." Despite that, the Ducks drew to within four in the final minute. The outcome wasn't resolved until Brewer blocked a Brooks layup attempt with 26 seconds left and hit two subsequent free throws. "It's been a lot harder this year," said Brewer. "Night in, night out we get everybody's best shot. And people play us totally different. This has been really tough, but it's also been really rewarding."