INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis -- With four sophomores and one junior in their starting lineup, the Florida Gators were said to be too young to make a run in the Southeastern Conference this season, let alone accomplish a victory the magnitude of a national championship.
In fact, Florida began the season unranked - picked by some to finish fifth in the SEC.
What mattered most last night, though, was where Florida's season ended - on college basketball's grandest stage, piled on top of one another in a center-court celebration after a performance that raised the Gators above all the rest.
Facing a strong UCLA team that brought with it a storied tradition of 11 national championships, Florida remained undaunted and used a staunch defense to breeze to a 73-57 win at RCA Dome for the program's first national title.
"Everybody was talking about their defense," Florida forward Corey Brewer said. "We proved who's the best defensive team and we're national champions. I felt like we were going to win the game by a large margin when we came in.
"Nobody gave us any respect all year," he said. "We proved it. We took our respect. ... It's the best feeling in the whole wide world. It doesn't get any better than this in college basketball."
With his famous father watching from behind his dark sunglasses in the second row of stands, Florida's pony-tailed, 6-foot-11 forward Joakim Noah scored 16 points, grabbed nine rebounds and made six show-stopping blocks. He was named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player.
As confetti and streamers floated onto the court after the game, Noah climbed into the stands to embrace his father, Yannick, the former tennis great, and his mother, Cecilia Rodhe, a former Miss Sweden.
At 40, Florida coach Billy Donovan became the second-youngest active coach to win a national title, and he joined Bob Knight and Dean Smith as the only men to have played in a Final Four and then won it all as a coach.
"It's interesting, a faculty rep said to me before the game, 'You know something, Billy, when you can start something from scratch and build it up to win a championship, that's the special part of it,' " Donovan said. " ... I'm very blessed and very thankful for the opportunity to coach these kids."
In the program's third appearance in the Final Four, Florida (33-6) won with its defense and took the Bruins out of their inside game, cruising to a 20-point lead midway through the second half. UCLA (32-7) led 4-2 in the first half but never again.
"They left us to rely on our dribble penetration, and once we got in there, it was either a blocked shot or they changed a lot of shots," said UCLA guard Jordan Farmar, who his team with 18 points and was the only Bruin named to the all-tournament team. "That's what their two bigs bring to the table."
Noah and center Al Horford entered the game with the best combined shot-blocking total in school history, and they combined for eight last night.
Florida's 10 blocked shots set a championship game record, and Noah's 29 during the tournament broke the NCAA mark.
Florida's defense had been progressing all season but might have reached its peak last night. The Gators held UCLA to 36.1 percent shooting, and only 3-for-17 from three-point range.
The start of the second half was reminiscent of Florida's semifinal win over George Mason, in which junior guard Lee Humphrey hit back-to-back three-pointers to further distance the Gators. Humphrey again came out with a sweet shot, scoring six points in roughly a minute for a 42-25 edge. Brewer added another three-pointer on their next possession.
Humphrey scored 15 points, and all four of his baskets were from long range.
"It's always important when you can make shots," he said. "I'm just so happy that we got this victory."
With former UCLA greats like Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watching from the stands, the Bruins struggled to carry on their legacy. UCLA made just one field goal in the first 4 1/2 minutes, missing several layups and inside shots.
All season, UCLA was known for its staunch defense, but it was the Gators who made the stops early last night. Florida held UCLA to 29.6 percent shooting (8-for-27) in the first half, with only three Bruins scoring.
It didn't help that Noah's impeccable timing led to five blocked shots in the first half, and that the Gators frustrated UCLA on just about every second-chance try. The Bruins had seven offensive rebounds, but only scored three second-chance points.
Florida took the lead three minutes into the game and held it the rest of the way. But it wasn't until Humphrey was fouled on a made three-pointer and completed the four-point play with 9:54 remaining that the momentum really seemed to shift in its favor. At one point, UCLA had as many field goals (six) as turnovers.
"We knew they were going to pressure us, so we just tried to beat it," said Florida guard Taurean Green, who had a game-high eight assists. "We were fortunate to get in the lane and make dump-down passes and get easy buckets."
Florida senior forward Adrian Moss, a reserve who came into the game with an average of 3.0 points and 2.3 rebounds, helped take away the Bruins' inside game. His defense prevented a second-chance shot by Lorenzo Mata, and he scored on the ensuing play to put the Gators ahead 30-17 with 7:22 remaining.
Florida went to the locker room with a 36-25 halftime lead.
"We'll learn from this," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "Our players who are returning have grown a lot this season. My message to the team is that our goal is to get back again next year and win it."