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March 23, 2007
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Florida started slowly - again - and staved off another challenge with a late surge.
If these Gators are going to repeat, it seems they're going to do it the hard way.
Al Horford had 16 points, seven rebounds and a key block in the final minute to help the top-seeded Gators hold off undersized Butler 65-57 Friday night.
The Gators (32-5), trying to become the first team since Duke in 1992 to win consecutive national titles, advanced to the Midwest Regional on Sunday against the Oregon-UNLV winner.
The defending national champions trailed by as many as nine points and never found their comfort zone against the scrappy Bulldogs.
But they took control in the final two minutes - thanks mostly to Horford.
Florida, which won six tournament games last year by an average of 16 points, has had more rough spots than expected in the first three rounds of this tournament.
The Gators trailed No. 16 seed Jackson State by five points early and were up just six at halftime before pulling away. They got behind by seven against Purdue in the first half and were down 33-29 early in the second.
Horford was the difference-maker against Purdue, and he did most of the damage against fifth-seeded Butler, too.
The 6-foot-10 forward converted a three-point play with 2:34 remaining, then blocked a shot with 16.3 seconds remaining. He got plenty of help, too.
Corey Brewer hit a baseline jumper with 1:43 remaining that made it 59-54. Brewer later made two free throws and finished with 11 points.
Taurean Green had 17 points, and Joakim Noah finished with 13 points and nine rebounds. Noah was 9-of-11 from the free throw line.
Noah and Horford - 3 inches taller than any of their opponents - made the most of their size advantage. They drew fouls and went a combined 17-of-21 from the line.
Butler had two players foul out, but hung tough with tight defense, few turnovers and savvy play.
Pete Campbell led Butler (29-7) with 14 points. Mike Green has 12, and A.J. Graves had 11 - all in the second half. Green and Graves, though, were a combined 1-of-9 from 3-point range and had five assists and four turnovers.
The Bulldogs might have made had a chance late if not for three missed free throws - uncharacteristic for coach Todd Lickliter's squad, which made nine in a row to start the game.
Mike Green missed two with 2:13 to play, then Graves missed one with 1:29 remaining. Butler got the rebound on Graves' miss, but made just one more basket the rest of the way.
Florida was 6-of-6 from the stripe in the final 35 seconds.
Butler used several offensive rebounds and second-chance shots to cut into a six-point halftime deficit and had the lead in the second half.
But not enough of the outside shots that carried the team throughout the season fell. The Bulldogs finished 7-of-19 from 3-point range, including 2-of-7 after the break.
Butler dictated the pace most of the way, milking the clock, making Florida defend for long possessions and getting open outside shots.
It worked early, too.
The Bulldogs used a 10-0 run - all scored by Brandon Crone - to take a 14-6 lead, then pushed it to nine points on several occasions. Campbell had back-to-back 3-pointers - the second one making it 25-16 with 8:42 remaining in the half.
Butler went cold from there, at least until the second half.
Florida, meanwhile, settled into a groove offensively and defensively.
The Gators closed the first half with a 17-2 run and scored the last 13 points. The Gators had nine turnovers, but made up for them with an 18-8 rebounding advantage.
Graves struggled in the first half. Butler's leading scorer was 0-for-6 from the field and 0-for-3 from behind the arc - guarded by Noah and Horford at times.
Butler fell to 0-2 against the Gators.
The teams last met in the first round of the 2000 tournament, and they provided a frantic finish and a game-winning shot at the buzzer by Florida's Mike Miller.
Three players from that Butler team - Jordan, Joel Cornette and Matthew Graves - are part of the current coaching staff.
The game was a turning point for both programs.
It started a run of tournament appearances for Butler, which used to be best known for having the gym used in "Hoosiers."
Florida won its next four games and advanced to the championship game for the first time in school history.