ATLANTA // They turned down the guaranteed glamour and glitz of the NBA in favor of 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 thetournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The Florida Gators are one win away frombecoming 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 at the Georgia Dome. The Gators defeated Ohio State, 86-60, on Dec. 23.
In an improbable turn of chance, the same two programs that competed this fall 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.
The Gators, who set a school record with 34 wins, became just the seventh team to win a national title and return to the championship game the next year. The last team to repeat as national champions was Duke in 1992.
Joakim Noah, Florida's outspoken ponytailed personality, has been the face of the program for the past two seasons, but it was Corey Brewer's outstanding offense last night that helped put the Gators in a position to doit again.
He made one of two free throws with 50 seconds remaining to finish with a game-high 19 points. Brewer couldn?t stop smiling, and Noah was chomping on his mouthpiece like it was Porterhouse steak and there wasn?t a care in the world. The two met near half court after the game to slap hands, and Noah walked to the Gators' fans to give them 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. The Gators still maintained a double-digit lead for the bulk of the second half.
After heading to the locker room with a somewhat precarious 29-23 lead, Florida opened the second half with an 18-7 run that put the Gators ahead 47-30.
Florida easily handled UCLA in the title game last season, but it took awhile for the Gators to finally distance themselves yesterday ? 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 of the game until 7:28 into the first half and didn?t make its second until there was 10:34 remaining. The Gators took the lead for the first time when Corey Brewer made both of his free throws to put them up 7-6 with 11:26 left in the half. It was a lead they clung on to, as UCLA went to the locker room trailing 29-23.
The Gators used a 10-0 run to take a 26-16 lead with 3:28 left in the half, but sophomore forward Josh Shipp scored back-toback baskets in a span of 25 seconds to halt the Gators' momentum. Shipp scored 14 points in the first half, but he was the only player in UCLA's rotation to score more than three points in the first half.
Noah was charged with his second foul at the 1:37 mark and he pulled his mouthpiece out to yell an expletive as he headed to the bench.
Horford had 10 rebounds in the first half ? all defensive ? and Brewer scored 15 points, but Florida was hurt by its 10 turnovers while UCLA only committed one.