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St. Louis regional sends Florida to NCAA Final Four

Florida Gators Joakim Noah signals after scoring a basket in the second half against the Oregon Ducks in the NCAA Midwest Regional at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on March 25, 2007. (UPI Photo/Bill Greenblatt)


St. Louis, MO – The Florida Gators geat Oregon Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome to advance to the NCAA Final Four, 85-77.

The Gators (33-5) are aiming to be the first team since Duke in 1991-92 to win back-to-back basketball titles and the first ever to do it with the same five starters.

To do it, though, they'll have to first get by UCLA in the national semifinals Saturday. It's a rematch of last year's championship game, which Florida won in a rout, 73-57.

"They are better than a year ago, and present a great challenge for us," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "They have no weaknesses."

Last year's victory over UCLA gave Florida not only its first national title, but the first half of what would turn out to be the Gator Slam. When Florida beat Ohio State for the national football title in January, the Gators became the first school to be champs in both sports at the same time.

And how's this for quirky: If the Gators get by UCLA on Saturday, they could be playing none other than those Buckeyes for the title. Ohio State won the South Regional, and will play Georgetown on Saturday.

"People throw everything at us every time they play us," Chris Richard said. "Everyone is out to get us. Sometimes we think we're the Yankees or the Cardinals. The New England Patriots or the Dallas Cowboys."

One of the biggest knocks on Florida is that while the team looks exactly like last year's, it doesn't play like it.

With the exception of one game, last year's squad romped through the tournament. This one has had to come from behind in each game.

Last year's squad was devastatingly potent, with Noah, Horford and Brewer dominating inside and Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green hurting opponents outside. This year's squad has yet to get the bigs and the guards going at the same time.

On Sunday, Noah had 14 points and 14 rebounds, Horford had only six points and seven rebounds, and was never much of a factor.

It was the Ducks (29-8) who dictated the tempo of the game early, getting their guards free for easy shots and even dumping the ball inside to Malik Hairston. They flustered Florida just as much on the other end, and the Gators had nine turnovers before the game was even 10 minutes old.

But after that ninth turnover, Florida settled down. Humphrey hit a 3-pointer that sparked a 20-9 run. Over the next 6 1/2 minutes, the Gators didn't have a single turnover and turned a five-point deficit into a 33-27 lead.

Aaron Brooks tied it at 45 with 17:06 left, following a 3-pointer with a layup. But Green responded with a 3 and a driving layup that brought the Florida bench to its feet and gave the Gators a 50-45 lead with 16:18 to play.

After a timeout, Humphrey hit a 3 to make it 53-47 with 15:35 to go, and Oregon never got closer than four rest of the way.

"We've always been a team that's tried to take what the defense gives us," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "It was a game where we were going to have to make some 3-point shots and just not pound the ball inside. It was a game where our bigs didn't score a lot of points and our guards shot the ball very well."

The Gators have won 16 straight in the postseason, a stretch that includes one national championship and two Southeastern Conference titles.

As for teh host city, St. Louis will next host an NCAA event next month, when college hockey crowns its champion in the Frozen Four.


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