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MONDAY, MARCH 12, 2007
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Champion Gators leave the rest of SEC glum
UF’s four juniors pace another tournament title

By Bradley Handwerger
bhandwerger@decaturdaily.com · 340-2462

ATLANTA — The chant started as a low murmur before growing in volume.

“One more year! One more year!”

The Florida fans weren’t talking about the Gators’ third straight Southeastern Conference championship, secured with a 77-56 win over Arkansas on Sunday.

Instead, they rained down cheers on juniors Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green and Corey Brewer.

Against Arkansas, the foursome was fearsome, scoring 54 of Florida’s 77 points and grabbing 26 of the Gators’ 41 rebounds. The group already stuck around after last season’s national championship. But the question now is whether they will postpone the NBA again.

For now, that question takes a back seat to whether Florida can defend its NCAA crown.

The Gators (29-5) enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest regional. Arkansas (21-13) earned a bid as the No. 12 seed in the East regional.

“They’re at championship-level basketball right now,” Arkansas head coach Stan Heath said. “So many weapons.”

If the SEC tournament is any clue, the Gators could be well on their way. In three games, the Gators gave up an average of 57.3 points a game and never allowed a run of more than five points.

Florida dispatched Georgia, Ole Miss and Arkansas by an average margin of 19.6 points.

On Sunday, the game changed early. Arkansas (21-13) lost forward Charles Thomas in the opening two minutes to an ankle injury. Thomas, who scored 18 points and grabbed 18 rebounds in the Razorbacks’ 81-72 semifinal win over Mississippi State, didn’t return and finished with zero points and one board.

“It just disrupts your rhythm, your chemistry on the court, to have a guy who has three years of experience under his belt, and has played in the SEC tournament before, and now we’re relying on the freshmen,” Heath said

As the Florida fans in Section C44 of the Georgia Dome began chanting, this one was just like in football, where Florida beat Arkansas 38-28 for the SEC championship.

Despite the loss of Thomas, Arkansas kept it close early, trailing by only six at the break. Immediately before halftime, it appeared that Arkansas would find a little bit of luck.

Florida’s Horford, who finished as the tournament’s most valuable player after scoring 18 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the finals, limped off the court and into the locker room. To that moment, he had scored 10 points and seven rebounds and dominated the lane.

But Horford returned in the second half and added eight more points and five more rebounds, and Florida pulled away.

“We came out the first five minutes of the second half and came out strong,” Horford said. “Anytime they tried to get close, we pulled away.”

Noah finished 17 points, and Green had 10.

Arkansas could have been hurt by having to play four games in four days.

SEC freshman of the year Patrick Beverly, key to Arkansas’ run to the finals, made 2 of 11 shots and finished with five points.

Sonny Weems, who stepped up his game in the tournament, had six points a day after finishing with 18 against Mississippi State.

Meanwhile, Florida finished a run of three games in three days where it wasn’t tested.

“This was a game where I think probably fatigue played a factor for both teams, but our guys found a way to manufacture points, and play together and defensively were able to get some stops,” Florida head coach Billy Donovan said.

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