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Defending champs return to Final Four

Florida beats Oregon to get within two wins of second consecutive national title.

Florida’s Joakim Noah reacts during the second half against Oregon in St. Louis, Sunday.

AP photo

Oregon’s Maarty Leunen, No. 10, and Tajuan Porter, No. 12),watch as Florida’s Corey Brewer goes up to score during the first half of the NCAA Midwest Regional final in St. Louis on Sunday.

AP photo

ST. LOUIS — Go ahead, hate Florida all you want. But you can’t beat these Gators. Not in the NCAA tournament.

Not yet, anyway.

Inside, outside, early, late — the Gators find a way to get it done when there’s a title at stake.

Joakim Noah and his buddies are heading back to the Final Four, looking for a second straight national championship that was worth more to them than NBA millions.

“It’s so great because we were under a microscope,” Noah said after Florida’s 85-77 victory over third-seeded Oregon in the Midwest Regional final on Sunday afternoon.

“There was so much hate. But we know that what matters is what’s going on here.”

Lee Humphrey made seven 3-pointers and finished with 23 points, and Taurean Green added 21. Noah had 14 points and 14 rebounds. It was Florida’s 16th straight postseason victory, a stretch that includes one national championship and two Southeastern Conference titles.

Next stop for the top-seeded Gators: Atlanta, where they’ll play UCLA in the national semifinals in a rematch of last year’s championship Game.

“The ultimate goal is to do it again,” Chris Richard said. “We’re one step away from the championship.”

Florida beat UCLA last year in a rout, 73-57, for its first national championship — and 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.

Now Florida (33-5) would like to win both crowns in the same calendar year. And make a little history as 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.

“It was a lot harder this year because night in and night out, we got people’s best shot. We’ve had to adjust and it’s just been really tough,” Corey Brewer said. “It’s been really rewarding because we’ve got the same five guys back and basically the same team.

“We just love playing with each other, and it feels so good to get back to the Final Four.”

But make no mistake: A regional title isn’t why Noah, Al Horford and Brewer — all certain to have been lottery picks with Noah the likely No. 1 — put their NBA millions on hold last spring.

They want another title, and anything less will be a bitter disappointment.

Oregon was trying to get to the Final Four for the first time since winning it all in 1939, the first year of the NCAA tournament. But the Ducks (29-8) were done in by foul trouble the entire game and by freshman Tajuan Porter going cold.

“I was probably a little too hyped,” Porter said. “They had pretty good shot pressure. I just wasn’t hitting my shots.”

Porter, the 5-foot-6 guard who went off for eight 3s and 33 points in Friday night’s regional semifinal, didn’t make his first field goal until there were 40 seconds left in the game. He finished with 10 points, but was just 2-of-12 from the field.

Aaron Brooks led Oregon with 27 points, and Malik Hairston added 18 and five rebounds before fouling out with 3:54 to play. Maarty Leunen and Joevan Catron also fouled out, and Brooks and Adam Zahn finished with four fouls each.

“We lost that game,” Hairston said. “They didn’t take it from us.”

The Gators have yet to play their best — or even a consistent — game in the NCAA tournament. They’ve had to come from behind in each game, and have yet to get a dominant performance from both their big guys and guards at the same time.

But half a Gator team is better than most wholes. After Horford carried the Gators in the regional emifinal, it was Humphrey and Green doing the work Sunday.

“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.”

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