ATLANTA - Joakim Noah sat at his locker wearing a blue and orange beaded necklace adorned with alligator figurines. He wore his cap backward, with the Velcro strap dangling sloppily over his forehead. A huge smile was on his face. And he couldn’t stop talking.
“I know that in 20 years if I’m down, that everybody in this locker room will have my back because of moments like this,” Noah said. “We will cherish this for the rest of our lives.”
His buddies certainly had his back Monday night.
Everyone can’t have a big game in the big game. On a night when Noah struggled with foul trouble, Corey Brewer and Al Horford more than compensated as the Gators defended their NCAA title with a 84-75 victory over the Buckeyes.
Noah played only 21 minutes and scored just eight points, a big drop-off from the 16-point, six-block performance in the title win over UCLA that earned him the Final Four most outstanding player trophy a year ago.
This year, it was Brewer’s turn to win the award. Brewer finished with 13 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Horford, sometimes the forgotten big man, had 18 points and 12 rebounds, a mean feat given that 7-footer Greg Oden was on the other team.
“I’ve never been so nervous in my life because there’s nothing you can do when you’re sitting on the bench,” said Noah, a bundle of energy who is hard to keep calm even when he’s playing. “And Greg Oden was just scoring basket after basket, and he was just such a presence out there today, and he’s so tough to guard. And we couldn’t double-team him because of the outside shooters that they have. I just feel like Corey made big plays and Horfy made huge plays, and I feel like it was a team effort.
“I feel like everybody contributed to this win, and that’s what it’s all about.”
It was a team effort indeed. The game ended a season in which Horford and Brewer made up ground on Noah in terms of talent and star-power. The threesome finished within a point and a half of each other in scoring average for the season, part of a balanced attack that made the Gators the first back-to-back winners since Duke in 1991-92.
Brewer hit one of the 3-pointers in the 9-0 run that put the Gators in control late in the first half. He went 4-for-12 from the field, but three of his baskets were 3-pointers. He also played well on the perimeter, helping to hold Ohio State to 4-for-23 shooting from 3-point range.
“Our defense, we felt like we could just play straight up in the post,” Brewer said. “Oden is a great player, but 2s can’t really beat you if you can guard the 3-point line. Defensively our team did good. We had each other’s back all night. We rebounded the ball like we needed to tonight.”
Horford was 6-for-15 from the field and 6-for-8 from the free-throw line. He also had two blocks and finished off the 3-on-1 break that gave the Gators a 12-point lead midway through the second half.
“Right now I’m sure what I’m going to do,” Noah said. “I feel like it’s all about enjoying this moment right now. I feel like it’s always about what’s going to happen next. It’s not about that. I’m looking forward to just going chillin’ tonight with the fellas and going back to Gainesville and going to the club and getting some of that Gator love, you know what I’m saying? Come on man, we’ll talk about that later.”
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