ATLANTA - Asked on Sunday what it would mean to win back-to-back national championships, Joakim Noah politely declined.

The Florida junior, rarely at a loss for words, felt it was inappropriate to talk about the Gators' place in history before the game was over.

"I feel like that's a question we should talk about after the game, if things go our way," Noah said.

Pardon Noah while he opens up. Noah, the walking pulse point for this team, pounded his fist in the air, chomped on his mouthpiece and then, after the requisite handshake, prowled his way through a throng of thrilled Florida fans to embrace his mother in stands as his Gators completed their quest for history, topping Ohio State, 84-75, last night to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to win back-to-back national championships.

With the confetti flowing and the Georgia Dome overstuffed with Florida fans who had made the 5-hour jaunt from Gainesville partying, the Gators reeled off their 18th consecutive postseason victory, a run dating back to Florida's second-round loss to Villanova in 2005.

"I sit up here very, very humbled, because I was fortunate enough over the last 2 years to coach a group of guys who I think will go down in history as one of the greatest of all time," coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm not saying we're the most talented or flawless, but when you talk about the word team and what team encompasses in terms of sacrifice, playing together, they have to go down and be considered one of the best."

The quintet of starters that has electrified college basketball for 2 years now finished the game together, the starting five on the floor to start the party. This time, they huddled together, finishing this thing exactly as they started it, as an unselfish bunch who understood that the sum was greater than the parts.

"It was so good," said junior Corey Brewer, named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player as much for his shutdown perimeter defense as his 13 points and eight rebounds. "This is the last time this starting five will be together, so to be out there with them was really special."

The University of Florida now has its second bookend for its championship sandwich, starting with last year's hoops title, throwing in a BCS football championship in the middle, and now another basketball crown. It is a greedy amassment of largesse never before seen in college sports. Since the NCAA began crowning national champions in its two premiere sports, only seven schools have ever won both. No one had ever it done in the same season, let alone turned the corner and begun the run on season No. 2.

Ohio State, in the meantime, retreats home, beaten with the double-double whammy. The Buckeyes have lost two national championships now to Florida, a painful pill to swallow, and now must endure the uncomfortable few days or weeks while Greg Oden ponders his future. Most figure the 7-foot freshman will jump directly to the NBA but he has not given an inkling of his intentions.

If this was his swan song, he certainly leaves with little doubt about his abilities. Oden had 25 points and 12 rebounds.

Of course, the Gator faithful have their own bit of unease to contend with for the next few days. With the rising sun this morning came the blue haze of Kentucky, looming like a big black cloud over Florida's happiness. The university reportedly has a contract - a rather large one - in hand to woo Donovan to its campus.

Now the question will be if Donovan, whom fans serenaded with a chant of "Bil-ly" during the trophy presentation, bolts for what is widely considered the crown jewel of college hoops or instead continues to build his empire in Gainesville.

It is hard to imagine any place better than the one that has secured college sports' last three most important championships, but if sports made sense we wouldn't have Terrell Owens, would we?

Fittingly, in this the 20th anniversary of the addition of the three-pointer, the shot that Dr. Ed Steitz took so much grief for bringing into the game made all the difference. For 15 minutes, Ohio State stared down the Gators without blinking, surviving two fouls on their electric point guard, Mike Conley Jr., to make it 24-22 with 6:18 to play.

But sometimes basketball is as simple as kindergarten math. Three points are more than two. Florida shot 10-for-18 from the arc for the game, Ohio State just 4-for-23 and, well, start doing the Chisenbop and figure it out.

"I thought the three-point line was key, so any time you can hit a string of threes in a row, it's good to stop the momentum for a little bit," said sharpshooter Lee Humprhey, who was responsible for four of the Gators' treys.

Humphrey ignited a three-point barrage that was as unexpected as it was lethal, swishing from the wing. Brewer followed with his own trey ball, popping off a screen that, despite being practically telegraphed, Ohio State was helpless to stop and Taurean Green followed with another one.

It was over in 1:31 and only a 9-0 run, but it was a demoralizing display that put the Buckeyes in an 11-point hole.

Ohio State tried to rally in the second half, but that is not an easy proposition against the Gators. They are all encompassing, a team that not only shoots well, but plays lights-out defense and commands the boards. In Florida's six NCAA Tournament games this year, it is plus-90 on the glass. That is not a typo. Even Oden was no match for the Gators' trio of bigs. The Buckeyes were outrebounded, 38-28.

"They're just great at everything," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said. "I'd put them in that category of one of the best teams to win. You're going to see these guys playing for many, many years to come."

A year ago, Florida caught lightning in a bottle in March, riding a surprise Southeastern Conference Tournament title into the NCAA Tournament. Unheralded and virtually unknown, they swaggered their way to the championship, dismantling UCLA for the crown.

But before Gator fans, so accustomed to ignoring basketball season, could compartmentalize a hoops title, the players put the bull's-eye squarely on their backs, boldly declaring they would eschew the NBA in favor of a shot at destiny.

"We the Gators," Noah said by way of explanation on the eve of the championship game, "we have to come back with the ring."

The stats from this national championship game, like the stats from the rest of the season, show a team as unselfish as it is talented. Four of the five starters reached double scoring figures, with Noah narrowly missing, held to eight points.

Humphrey and Chris Richard are the lone seniors in this crew of talent. Noah, Al Horford, Green and Brewer are only juniors, a tantalizing year of eligibility left for each of them.

And so the question begins.


"You never know what will happen with the Gators," Brewer said. "If one of us stays, we all stay." *