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Florida earns first hoops championship


Celebration time down in Gainesville … get the banner ready for the O-Dome, the O'Connell Center. Florida Gators, national champions … it will be hanging in the rafters later this year.

Billy Donovan has hit a grand slam. What a magnificent job he and his staff did with a young, talented Gators team. There were four super sophs and a junior, and they had great chemistry and camaraderie. They were well-coached and had great balance. It was simply all too much for a UCLA team that won 32 games this season.

It was a dominating performance, especially on defense, led by the shot-blocking ability of Joakim Noah. He led the Gators' block party with a record five rejections in the first half.

A lot has been made of UCLA's defense, but the Gators can flat out play it as well. In fact, in its six NCAA Tournament games, Florida held each opponent to 62 points or less. How impressive was Noah? He had 29 blocks in the six games while Florida's opponents totaled 19.

Offensively, the balance was there as well, with four players scoring six or more points in the first half as Florida built a nice lead. Florida went inside to Noah and Adrian Moss, who did a great job off the bench. When the Gators wanted a lethal 3, Lee Humphrey came through with a pair of big trifectas early in the second half, the same way he did against George Mason on Saturday. That helped break the game open.

Corey Brewer brought that athleticism and versatility. I loved the way Florida made defensive plays, getting steals from behind on several occasions in building that 11-point lead at halftime.

What a solid basketball team, one that truly enjoyed playing together. Who would have believed it before the season started, as the Gators were unranked in the preseason poll? Think about it, Donovan's squad was without three guys -- David Lee, Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson, all entered in the NBA draft pool. You couldn't tell this young group that it wouldn't succeed.

Florida's players did not think NBA, NBA, NBA. Noah and Al Horford were thinking NCAA, NCAA, NCAA. This is an unselfish team and there is no jealousy.

The Gators sent a message early by beating a good Syracuse team at Madison Square Garden at the Coaches vs. Cancer event. They played brilliantly and ran off 17 straight victories to start the campaign. They went on to win the SEC championship and used that momentum to go through the NCAA Tournament.

For UCLA, it was a tough night. Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute did not score in the first half. Afflalo warmed up in the second half, but the Bruins' press could not slow down Noah and company, which had its share of dunks in transition.

UCLA has a lot to be proud of. Ben Howland has this program back in national championship contention in only his third season at the helm.

Monday night, there was a clear-cut winner. Congrats to the national champions, the University of Florida!

Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question for Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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