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Gators nab SEC title, cut short South Carolina's run

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- A very different Florida team brought
the Gators a second straight Southeastern Conference tournament
championship.

Joakim Noah, one of Florida's three new starters this season,
scored with 11 seconds left, then blocked a shot at the other end
and the Gators (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today, No. 16 AP) held off South Carolina 49-47 Sunday in
a sloppy championship game in which the Gamecocks nearly pulled off
the improbable upset.

"It's all about being in the right place at the right time, and
luck plays a big role in that because the ball could've went a
different trajectory," Noah said. "It's just a great feeling
right now. In my mind, it just went by so fast. But ... the next
thing I knew, I mean, we won."

Now Florida (27-6) can focus on improving on a second-round loss
in last year's NCAA Tournament. Corey Brewer, a starter this season
and last, said the Gators have their sights set on winning the
national championship.

"It is not about getting to the Sweet 16. We're in the
tournament to win it all. We won the SEC tournament, and now we
want to win the NCAA Tournament," Brewer said.

Florida could use a couple days to rest up for its 13th NCAA
Tournament appearance. The Gators talked of wanting revenge against
a team that swept them in the regular season, and they led the
entire way but never put away South Carolina in a grinding
performance.

The Gamecocks (18-15) already were the lowest seed ever to play
in this championship and had played in this game only once before --
in 1998.

With winning the title their only chance of reaching the NCAA
Tournament, they were trying to become the first team since
Arkansas in 2000 to win four games in four days. They almost pulled
it off.

"That's all any coach wants -- a chance to win the game in the
last minute of the game," said South Carolina's Dave Odom, who may
have stopped talk about his job security for the moment. "We had
that chance. I have no regrets. None. No regrets."

South Carolina guard Rocky Trice tied the game for the only time
at 47 with 42 seconds left when he drove through the lane and
scored on a layup. Brewer missed a short jumper, but Noah followed
up with the winning basket.

"Unfortunately, Noah's size and arm length and sense for the
game, and he's got a great sense for the game, won out," Odom
said. "He was there when the ball was deflected or missed and put
it back."

South Carolina had a chance to win or force overtime, but Tre
Kelley's 3 missed. Renaldo Balkman tried to tip the ball in to
force overtime, but Noah got a hand on the ball to clinch the
Gators' fifth straight victory. Asked to describe the final play,
Noah was succinct.

"He went up, and I blocked it," said the son of former tennis
star Yannick Noah.

Balkman thought the Gamecocks were going to pull out the game,
and he collapsed on the court for a couple minutes in disbelief
after the final buzzer.

"I couldn't believe it," he said of the block.

Brewer finished with 16 points for Florida, while fellow
sophomores Taurean Green and Noah, added 10 and eight,
respectively.

Balkman, Tarence Kinsey and Kelley each had 12 points for South
Carolina, and Balkman grabbed 11 rebounds.

The Gators came in as the first team other than Kentucky to
reach three straight title games since Alabama made four
consecutive appearances from 1989-1992.

South Carolina, which joined the SEC in 1991, was blown out
86-56 by Kentucky in its only other title game.

Florida should have done the same with the Gamecocks turning in
their worst shooting performance of the season (30 percent) as they
missed more shots (42) than the Gators attempted (41). The Gators
instead hurt themselves with 18 turnovers, including 12 steals by
the SEC's stingiest defense, which kept them from adding to an
11-point lead in the first half.

"We kind of allowed them to get back in and get closer,"
Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Neither team started well, and the fatigue apparently got to the
Gamecocks who hit only three of their first 24 shots. The team that
hit 10 3s to upset Florida in Gainesville on Feb. 8, missed their
first 13 3-pointers.

The low point for South Carolina was a stretch in which the
Gamecocks missed four shots on one possession before Balkman
finally scored. That might finally have got them started because
Sheldon hit a 3 on the next possession followed by another 3 by
Kelley that pulled them within 21-14 with 3:11 to go.

Odom credited Florida's zone with tempting his Gamecocks.

"They kind of lured us into a web, their web, and we took those
shots," Odom said.

Balkman stole the ball from Brewer and fed Kinsey for a layup
with 39 seconds left that cut Florida's lead to 25-18 going into
halftime.