ATLANTA -- They turned down the guaranteed glamour and glitz of the NBA for the possibility of winning a second consecutive national championship - a feat so rare and difficult that only one program has managed to accomplish it since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
Now the Florida Gators are one win away from becoming the second.
With its entire starting lineup intact from a year ago and playing in a rematch of last year's national championship game, Florida once again beat UCLA convincingly, this time a 76-66 victory last night that advanced the Gators to their second straight appearance in the national final. In a game that will feature two No. 1 seeds, Florida will face Ohio State at 9:21 tomorrow night in the national championship game at the Georgia Dome. The Gators defeated Ohio State, 86-60, on Dec. 23.
"A lot of people thought it may be possible for us to get back to this point; a lot of people thought it wouldn't be possible," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who led the team to a school-record 34 wins. "I really felt like the best thing I tried to emphasize to our team was the most important thing is try to become the best we can become, and if we do that, then we've got to let the chips fall where they may, and that's what they've tried to do all year long. But with that there's been all this other stuff they've had to handle. It's forced them to really grow and mature as people and as players."
In an improbable turn of chance, the same two programs that competed in the winter for the national title in football will meet again, this time on college basketball's grandest stage. Florida beat Ohio State, 41-14, to win the Bowl Championship Series national title game in Glendale, Ariz., in January.
"We're just excited to have another opportunity to play in the national championship game," said guard Lee Humphrey, who finished with 14 points and was 4-for-8 shooting three-pointers. "No matter who we play, they're going to be a tough team. Ohio State is tough. We're just looking forward to the challenge."
The Gators became just the seventh team in NCAA tournament history to win a national title and return to the final the next year. The last team to repeat as national champions was Duke in 1992.
"In order to go through a year like this, you have to have guys who remain coachable," Donovan said. "What happens is sometimes players lose their humility, they lose their sense of who they really are and have an elevated opinion of how good they think they are, and at that time can sometimes be uncoachable, where they've got all the answers. These guys are as coachable this year as they were last year."
Joakim Noah, Florida's outspoken ponytailed personality, has been the face of the program for the past two seasons, but it was forward Corey Brewer's outstanding offense yesterday that helped put the Gators in a position to do it again.
Brewer finished with a game-high 19 points and met Noah near half court after the game to slap hands. Noah, who had 11 rebounds and four blocks, then walked in front of the Florida fans behind the team bench to salute them with the Gator chomp.
Brewer, who entered the game with a team-high average of 15.8 points in the NCAA tournament, had racked up 18 with 11:58 still left to play.
"Corey had a terrific first half and really bailed us out offensive a few times with some big plays," Donovan said.
In the second half, Humphrey was the one who came through.
He scored 11 of his points in the second half, including three three-pointers.
"In the second half I was fortunate enough to knock them down," he said. "I think that was the biggest difference - I just made the shots instead of missed them."
Florida surged to a 73-57 win over UCLA last year, but it took awhile for the Gators to finally distance themselves last night - despite shooting 50 percent from the field in the first half while holding the Bruins to 31 percent. Florida didn't make its first field goal until 7:28 into the first half.
After heading to the locker room with a precarious 29-23 lead that resulted in part from UCLA guard Arron Afflalo's three early fouls and Florida's 10 turnovers, the Gators opened the second half with an 18-7 run that put the Gators ahead 47-30. With 9:02 left to play, Florida led by 18 points, the biggest margin of the game.
Meanwhile, Florida's defense held the Bruins to 39.1 percent from the field. Center Al Horford grabbed 17 rebounds, 15 of which were defensive.
Bruins sophomore forward Josh Shipp scored a team-high 18 points, and UCLA turned the ball over only three times, but still came up short.
"They're very, very impressive," said UCLA coach Ben Howland. "As I said coming in, they have no weaknesses."
UCLA-Shipp 7-14 4-4 18, Mbah a Moute 2-4 0-0 4, Mata 3-6 0-0 6, Collison 3-14 2-2 9, Afflalo 5-14 4-4 17, Westbrook 1-2 0-0 2, Wright 0-0 0-0 0, Aboya 2-4 1-2 5, Keefe 1-1 0-1 2, Roll 1-5 0-0 3. Totals 25-64 11-13 66. FLORIDA-Brewer 5-7 5-6 19, Noah 3-7 2-7 8, Horford 2-3 5-9 9, Green 2-9 5-6 10, Humphrey 5-9 0-1 14, Hodge 0-2 0-0 0, Werner 0-1 0-0 0, Richard 7-7 2-2 16. Totals 24-45 19-31 76. Halftime-Florida, 29-23. 3-point goals-UCLA 5-23 (Afflalo 3-9, Roll 1-4, Collison 1-6, Shipp 0-4), Florida 9-22 (Brewer 4-5, Humphrey 4-8, Green 1-7, Hodge 0-1, Werner 0-1). Fouled out-Afflalo, Mata, Mbah a Moute. Rebounds-UCLA 26 (Keefe 6), Florida 43 (Horford 17). Assists-UCLA 12 (Collison, Shipp 5), Florida 10 (Green, Horford 3). Total fouls-UCLA 26, Florida 17. A-53,510.