ATLANTA – A long, tough season ended with a Gator chomp again.
Mission accomplished for Florida.
The Gators were too much to handle once again Monday night, keeping their stranglehold on the college basketball world with an 84-75 victory over Ohio State for their second straight national championship.
• PHOTO ESSAY: The 2007 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game
Al Horford had 18 points and 12 rebounds, Taurean Green had 16 and Greg Oden's 25 points and 12 rebounds weren't enough for Ohio State (35-4) to stop the Gators (35-5) from completing the quest they set upon when all the starters delayed their NBA plans for a try at another title.
"It feels great. This is what we came back to school for," Florida guard Corey Brewer said. "This is what we're all about at the University of Florida, winning championships. We're No. 1 again, two in a row, back-to-back. That's what we do."
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They celebrated with the usual Gator chomps and took a chomp out of NCAA history, too — becoming the first team to repeat since Duke in 1991-92, the first ever to go back-to-back with the same starting five and adding their name to the debate about the best teams of all time.
Best athletic programs of all time, too.
This win completes a 2007 championship-game sweep of the Buckeyes in the two biggest college sports — men's hoops and football. Florida, a 41-14 winner in the football title game in January, remains the only program in history to hold both championships at the same time.
The celebration looked much the same as last year. Lots of jersey tugging, jumping onto press row and Joakim Noah running into the stands to hug it out with loved ones.
Billy Donovan added another gold star to his resume, which figures to command more than his current $1.7 million next season, whether he returns to Florida or bolts for a possible job offer at Kentucky.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Donovan said. "We've had to win different ways and with the expectations, and I think you really have to look at this team, and I'm not saying they are the best team, but you have to look at them and say they are one of the best teams to play this game."
It was hardly just a matter of Donovan rolling the ball out there. All season — including in the 86-60 victory over Ohio State in December — the Gators have morphed into whatever kind of team they needed to be to win.
In this one, stopping Oden figured to be the key, but really it was more complex than that. The 7-foot freshman, who may be one-year-and-done with the NBA beckoning, stayed out of foul trouble and played 38 minutes — just what the Buckeyes figured they needed to have a chance.
Florida's focus, however, was more on stopping the rest of the team. Oden drew mostly single coverage when the ball went into the post. Donovan played a lot of zone and mixed his big men in and out, adding 6-10 Marreese Speights to the mix to give him five more fouls to play with.
That strategy worked well enough — well enough to win at least. Ohio State couldn't take advantage of any other matchups, especially on the perimeter. Ivan Harris was the only Buckeye to make a 3-pointer over the first 39-plus minutes of the game, and he finished 2-for-8. Mike Conley Jr. finished with 20 points for Ohio State, but lots of them came late after the Buckeyes were playing big-time catch-up.
Meanwhile, one thing Florida has always been able to do is shoot the ball — a nation-leading 53 percent this year — and Monday night was no exception as the Gators went 10-for-18 from 3-point range. Florida also had quicker hands.
How frustrating it must have been for Ohio State to watch Oden block shot after shot, only to see the Gators grab the rebound and feed back out to Lee Humphrey for a 3.
That happened twice in the second half, both times when an Oden block looked like it might spark Ohio State, which kept the game in reach but couldn't get the deficit below six.
"The difference was they made some incredible plays, and we took away what we wanted to take away," OSU coach Thad Matta said. "They were shooting runners in. When you're playing a great team like Florida and those guys step up and make the plays, there's not a lot you can do. They made some incredible plays on us."
Green finished 3-for-3 from 3-point range and Humphrey was his usual killer self, going 4-for-7 and scoring 14 points. Florida's versatility showed most in the first half when those two and Brewer (13 points) hit back-to-back-to-back 3s to push Florida's lead to double digits.
Horford had a monster game, bodying up with the 7-foot Oden on defense and more than holding his own on the other end. He spotted up and made three 15-plus-foot jumpers and twisted and turned for a few more hoops. Clearly, another year in college has helped this 6-10 junior, who now looks every bit like a lottery pick.
Noah, on the other hand, probably sacrificed the most. He might have been the top pick had he left last season, but the presence of Oden and Kevin Durant, to say nothing of Noah's dwindling stats, have pushed him down.
He finished with eight points and three rebounds in this one, but big individual numbers were never the point with the Gators this year.
They came back for the championship and anything less would have felt hollow.
But there will be no regrets. Instead, how about a nice little debate about the best programs of all time?
Repeats will almost certainly go down as a rarity in this age of one-year-and-done college players, and nobody in the last 15 years — even before the NBA money started skyrocketing — could do it anyway.
As the trophy presentation began, there was a long, loud chant of "It's great ... to be ... a Florida Gator." But one, a bit less voracious, could also be heard: "One more year. One more year. One more year," a few Florida fans yelled from the stands.
Nothing wrong with dreaming, right?
In a way, though, Florida is already living that dream.
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