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Noah’s play inside the arc a big key

Sophomore Florida forward Joakim Noah was instrumental in the Gators’ win.

The game was all but over.

Leading 75-62 with just less than 30 seconds remaining in the game, Florida’s bench was eyeing the nets and getting the scissors ready.

But despite the 13-point lead, Florida sophomore Joakim Noah refused to let Villanova score an easy basket.

Noah rejected Randy Foye’s layup with 29 seconds left to ensure not only his team’s 75-62 win and a trip to the Final Four, but also guaranteed that his name would appear on the All-Tournament team.

“Joakim Noah was outstanding,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We had a tough time disrupting them because he gave so much balance to them, and just kept them under control.”

Noah was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Minneapolis Regional, and he was joined on the All-Tournament roster by teammates Al Horford and Taurean Green.

And against the Wildcats, Noah was the Gators’ go-to guy.

He made four of his eight shots from the field while converting on 13 of 15 free-throw attempts for a team-high 21 points.

But it was his 15 rebounds, all of which were on the defensive end, and his five blocks that set the tone for Florida’s defense.

Most of Noah’s highlights won’t show up on the stat sheet, either, as it was apparent his presence in the lane was forcing Villanova to settle for outside jumpers.

The Wildcats shot just 25 percent from the field – 18 of 73 – and were just 17 percent from behind the arc.

If Villanova’s guards were able to penetrate the lane, it seemed like their shot was always contested.

“Noah only had three blocked shots at halftime, but I think he might have changed maybe five or six shots,” Wright said. “He is long enough that he could just change (our) shots without fouling.”

But things didn’t go as well for Noah at the end of Friday’s contest. In order to advance to the Elite Eight, the Gators first had to get past seventh-seeded Georgetown.

With that game close down the stretch, Florida coach Billy Donovan had no hesitation in planning to get the ball to his big man.

“We came out of a timeout and I really felt like we got the ball exactly where wanted to get it,” Donovan said. “We got it to Joakim about four feet from the basket.”

With Florida down one with 52 seconds remaining in regulation, Noah missed the close shot.

“I want to thank Corey Brewer for saving my butt,” Noah said, “because I missed a wide-open one at the end.”

But the Gators got the offensive rebound and Brewer made a jumper while getting fouled, converting on the three-point opportunity to give Florida a 55-53 lead with 28 seconds left on the clock.

Noah said he was glad to make up for the near-fatal mistake with a strong showing against Villanova.

“The Gators boys are hot right now,” Noah said. “We are very happy to be in the Final Four right now, and just taking possession by possession, game by game, and hopefully we get a nice little ring in Indianapolis.”

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