Florida savors its return trip to Final Four

ST. LOUIS — ST. LOUIS -- A year ago, on a similar Sunday afternoon in a similar Midwestern domed arena, there was dancing and singing and jubilation. The Florida Gators had vanquished Villanova to reach the Final Four for the first time, and the midcourt scene came straight out of New Year's Eve.

When it happened again yesterday, when the top-seeded Gators held off No. 3 seed Oregon, 85-77, in the Midwest Region final to earn a second consecutive trip to college basketball's main event, the mood swung toward subdued. The players hoisted the trophy, snipped the Edward Jones Dome nets and hugged friends and relatives. But this was more, well, business.


If last year was about enjoying, this year was about enduring.

"To get to this point just once, it's hard," Gators coach Billy Donovan said in the locker room after the game. "It's so hard. And it was hard again this year."


Still, here are the Gators, title defense intact, at least until Saturday's national semifinal against UCLA - a rematch of last year's championship - inside Atlanta's Georgia Dome at approximately 8:47 p.m.

They're the first defending champion to return to the Final Four since Michigan State in 2001. They've won 16 straight postseason games (Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments), most since Nevada-Las Vegas almost two decades ago. And with two more victories, they'll be the first team to win consecutive national titles since Duke in 1991 and 1992.

"To do it all over again, it doesn't get any better," junior Al Horford said. "It's more than I could have asked for."

The final leg of the road to the Final Four mirrored many of the others on what the Gators (33-5) unanimously deemed an arduous journey. Florida trailed early for the fourth time in four NCAA tournament games but rallied behind their guards - senior sharpshooter Lee Humphrey and region Most Outstanding Player Taurean Green.

Humphrey made a career-high seven three-pointers and finished with a team-high 23 points. Green scored 21 points and made four threes, including one from the top of the key with 7:07 remaining in the first half. Florida took a 23-22 advantage on that one, and the Pacific-10 tournament champion Ducks (29-8) would never get the lead back.

For the game, Florida made 11 of 24 three-pointers.

"They really wanted to take away our inside, and the past couple of games, teams have been really taking away the perimeter," Humphrey said. "[We're] taking advantage of what they're giving us, and that was the perimeter jump shot."

Such a shooting night seemed necessary to combat another giddy team geared up to take down the Gators. It's served as a trend all year and surfaced as the primary reason why this championship run was tougher.


As defending champs, Florida started the season No. 1 in the nation. Early losses to Kansas and Florida State, by a total of six points and without a healthy Corey Brewer, dimmed the team's reputation. Even after wins, players heard questions about their efforts.

"Last year, we could do anything," said center Joakim Noah, who scored 14 points. "People were happy when we beat Jacksonville. ... This year, people are telling me I need to score more points. We've been through so much more."

A three-game losing streak late in conference play rekindled that criticism. But Florida has responded with 10 straight wins, their fourth double-digit victory streak of the past two years. First came an SEC tournament title, then tight wins over Purdue and Butler in rounds two and three of the NCAA.

Then, yesterday, a win over Oregon, and a trip to the Final Four. Expectations met, history made, and a different perspective on an accomplishment than this team held one year ago today.

"I don't think anybody understands how hard this is," senior forward Chris Richard said. "To go to two in a row, that's unbelievable in some ways."

Dave Curtis writes for the Orlando Sentinel.