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As the scheduled tip-off time of 4:05 came and went at the Metrodome, the seats remained half full, in both the stands and on press row. Hundreds of fans and journalists were clustered around televisions on the concourse and in the media workroom as No. 11 seed George Mason and No. 1 seed Connecticut battled it out in overtime in the Washington Regional final. When the Patriots finally won it 86-84, there was a roar from the fans in the stands, who had been following the game on an arena scoreboard. ( Villanova fans who were cheering the downfall of their Big East rivals might have, in hindsight, taken it as an omen.) People started streaming toward their seats just in time for the delayed tip-off.
Villanova, the only No. 1 seed left in a tournament that had treated the favorites harshly, looked vulnerable from the start. Florida jumped out to a 27-16 lead in the first 10 minutes by pounding the ball inside to Horford and the fiery Noah, who started thumping his chest and yelling to the Florida crowd eight minutes into the game. Once again, the Wildcats had to pull out of their four-guard offense early. Thanks in part to Florida's spectacular perimeter defense, Villanova's three-point-shooting guards were forced to drive and take difficult shots in the paint. Once again Foye produced the bulk of his team's offense, scoring 25 points. The only other Wildcat to hit double figures was guard Allan Ray, who had 11 points. In an offensive effort that would mark season lows for the team, Villanova hit just 18 of 73 shots from the field and 4 of 23 from the three-point line.
"It was probably 60 to 65 percent our defense and the rest they just missed good looks," estimated Florida senior forward Adrian Moss. "They got some great looks. I'm just glad they didn't go in. It's better to be lucky than good this time of year."
Make no mistake, the Gators were also very good. Noah, who had seen just two unproductive minutes of action against Villanova in last year's season-ending game, notched his second straight double double of the tournament with 21 points (including 13 of 15 attempts of his odd, push-shot free throws), 15 rebounds and five blocks and was voted the region's Most Outstanding Player. Horford added 12 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks. "Al and Jo rebounded like pros tonight," said Moss.
Sophomore Taurean Green, who made the all-regional team along with Noah and Horford, had 19 points, including 12 of 13 free throws. Brewer, who was plagued by foul trouble all night, was efficient when he was in, scoring 11 points and grabbing three rebounds while handling Foye on the perimeter.
Villanova junior forward Will Sheridan, who had an exhausting night battling Noah and Horford in the paint, felt there was nothing green about the team he had just faced. "I think they approached the game with a sense of maturity," he said. "They stepped it up. They're a bunch of sophomores and a junior. But they didn't play like that. They played like vets. They came with an intensity and a need to win. They were hitting shots. We weren't. They outlasted us and got it done."
After the buzzer sounded on the most decisive victory in the four regional finals, Noah made his way to the Florida fan section to hug his mother, former Miss Sweden Cecilia Rohde. She handed him a cellphone. On the other end, in France, was his father, former tennis star Yannick Noah. Father and son chatted even as Noah climbed the ladder to cut a piece of the first net. "I had the phone in my hand when I cut the net, so you know he heard the vibes," said Noah in the locker room later. "I told him, 'Hey, we're shining right now.'"
Was he looking forward to it? Said Noah, "I can't wait."
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