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Monday March 12, 2012The X-Factor: Murphy's Scoring "Trend" Could Go A Long Way For Gators

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- This is all you need to know about how well Erik Murphy played in Florida’s hard-fought loss Saturday to top-ranked Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. 


Murphy hit the Top 10 of “Trending in America” on Twitter Saturday in the closing minutes of the Gators’ game with Kentucky.  


If the image of, say, Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian mesmerized by Murphy scoring a career-high 24 points and burying all four of his 3-point attempts is a little tough to visualize, consider the number of folks outside the TMZ world locked in on the penultimate version of “March Madness” -- conference tournaments -- to see the 6-foot-10 junior forward score more points against UK than any SEC player this season. 


“Murph was great,” junior guard Kenny Boynton said after his teammate went 9-for-12 from the floor and helped UF hit 48.5 percent and nail 11 3-pointers against the best field-goal percentage defense in the country. “When he shoots like that, it makes everything easier and things just open up for everybody.” 


That’s why a red-hot Murphy could be the X-factor in helping Florida extend its season to next weekend. 


But first, this weekend. 


The 25th-ranked and seventh-seeded Gators (23-10) will have their hands full against 10th-seeded Virginia (22-9) in a West Region first-round game Friday that figures to be a test of wills between one team (UF) that wants to play fast and score in bunches and another (UVa) that wants a snail’s-pace, back-alley defensive brawl. 


Florida will try to run first, but when the Gators settle into their halfcourt offense they will work feverishly to get Murphy some open looks from 3-point range, where he has made 44.2 percent for the season, and thus stretch the Cavaliers’ disciplined defense. 


Possessions will be precious against Virginia, which led the Atlantic Coast Conference in scoring defense (53.7 points per game) and was third (behind only North Carolina and Florida State) in surrendering 39.6 percent from the floor. 


Within those precious possessions are, clean looks at the basket, especially from the arc, will be a scarcity against the Cavs’ defensive sets.  


“If I have open shots, I’m going to take them,” Murphy said. “If they go in or if they don’t, it’s not in my hands really. Hopefully, they go in. It helps the team.”


There’s no question the season-ending broken foot to forward Will Yeguete was a crushing loss for the Gators, costing them their best low-post defender, best rebounder and outstanding front man in the press. UF was forced to change much about what they do. 


But ask the Florida coaches which player holds the biggest key to what the Gators want to do on offense and the answer has been the same since practice began Oct. 15.


Erik Murphy. 


With apologies to Sarah Palin (who wasn’t trending Saturday, by the way), “A game changer,” was how UF assistant coach Matt McCall labeled Murphy. 


It’s one thing to be an outstanding 3-point shooter, but because Murphy is 6-10 he forces opposing defenses to extend a frontcourt player 19 feet from the basket, which opens the floor for guys like Erving Walker and Bradley Beal to go to work, whether on penetration kicks or hard drives to the rim. 


His long-range threat also draws double-teams from center Patric Young. 


“I think we complement each other really well,” Murphy said. 


There are drawbacks, of course.


On offense, having, in essence, your power forward lurking around the 3-point line means guards have to crash the block and pick up his rebounding slack. On defense, Murphy’s slight built puts him at something of a disadvantage down low, leaving him to try and make up for that bulk with his length. 


Murphy leads the team in blocked shots with 31, but Coach Billy Donovan would love to see his forward average more than 4.2 rebounds per game -- especially after seeing Kentucky pummel his team on the glass, 39-25, including 16 rebounds on the offensive end. 


“We need to get those other guys in there just to even put a body on somebody, come up with a loose ball, [on] those long rebounds that come over our heads [and] try to fill in from behind and try to get some of those,” Donovan said. “But I think Erik gets his hands on a lot of balls. He needs to grab them, come down with them. That would be helpful. But I think it's more of a team issue than just Erik's issue.”


Said Murphy: “I need to chase the ball more, once I box out. Chase the ball off the glass more. It’s just something that I gotta work on and try to get better at.”


His work ethic has got him to this X-factor point. That and necessity. 


This time last year, the Gators were headed for the NCAA Tournament with one of the most formidable frontcourts in the country -- with three seniors, no less -- and Murphy a reserve averaging only 4.3 points and playing less than 11 minutes per game. 


Now, Murphy’s at 10.7 points per game and making 49.8 percent of his shots. And while Boynton, Beal and Walker have made more 3-pointers this season, none have been as accurate as Murphy’s 44.2 percent. 

“He improved so much and I think he’s always had it in him,” Walker said. “I think he’s just playing with confidence right now.”

Murphy’s merely the key to everything the Gators want to do. 


“My confidence is always there. It’s not an issue,” he said. “Some shots fell against Kentucky.” 


From the 3-point line, they all did, actually. 


That’s a trend the Gators would love to see continue. 



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