Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
OMAHA, Neb. -- The Florida Gators had a commanding lead
in the final minutes of their NCAA Tournament opener against Virginia when
senior guard Erving Walker stole a pass in the Cavaliers halfcourt and took off
on a 3-on-1 break.
Walker weaved into UVa’s end, got a bead on the numbers advantage and tossed a lob pass toward the rim.
“I think he just threw it up and figured someone was going to get it,” junior forward Erik Murphy said.
Yeah, it was that kind of day for the Gators.
And it was that kind of day for seldom-used sophomore forward Casey Prather, who skied for the ball and flushed it with a vengeance to put a highlight reel finish on Florida’s 71-45 wipeout win in the NCAA West Region opener at the CenturyLink Center.
Prather, playing the game of his collegiate life, popped off the bench to score a career-high 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting and tally four rebounds. Freshman guard Bradley Beal, who ducked down and acquiesced to Prather on that alley-oop play, scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Sophomore center Patric Young was a perfect 6-for-6 from the floor, finishing with 13 points and seven rebounds.
Together, the trio helped offset a day when one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country made just four of 23 from the long range (missing its first 14 on the way to a season-low 17.4 percent), yet still managed to shoot -- and this is crazy -- 52.8 percent from the floor.
More importantly than all those numbers, of course, was that the victory advanced seventh-seeded UF (24-10) in the West bracket, setting up a Round of 32 date Sunday against No. 15-seed Norfolk State (26-9), which stunned second-seeded and third-ranked Missouri 86-84 in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history.
The Florida-Norfolk State winner will go to the Sweet 16 in Phoenix.
“We’re happy to be moving on,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.
Donovan spent the week drilling into his players about how Virginia (22-10) was a team very capable of forcing its disciplined, halfcourt style on any opponent and making the game akin to a visit to the dentist’s office.
Sure enough, the Cavs had the pace to their liking early on, opening a 10-2 lead through more than five minutes, forcing four turnovers in the Gators first nine possessions and allowing just one field goal in UF’s first six attempts.
“It’s the first round of the NCAA Tournament ... it’s nerves,” junior guard Kenny Boynton said. “Once we got settled in, we were good, pretty much.”
Yeah, pretty much.
“There were some first-game jitters, but give them credit,” senior point guard Erving Walker said. “They started off defensively real strong, but the press helped us out and loosened us up to get out and run. We were able to get easy points that way.”
Florida trailed 14-8 through eight minutes and had made only three of nine shoots when a slam-dunk from Young gave the the Gators a lift, but also allowed them to jump into their full-court pressure defense, the likes of which the Cavs did not fare well against this season.
“They sped us up,” UVa senior guard Sammy Zeglinski said. “We made some careless mistakes.”
With just one turnover after nine minutes, the Cavs coughed it up six times before halftime, as the Gators crashed the glass for some put-backs, drove the lane for some floaters and got the first 3-poiner of the game from Scottie Wilbekin with just over a minute to go in the half to take a 30-22 lead at intermission.
“Even though the score was not high in the first half, we got the pace the way we wanted to,” Donovan said. “We didn’t shoot it well, but they didn’t shoot it well, either. That allowed us to get out the break.”
Eventually, it wore on the Cavs, who only went seven players deep. By game’s end, all five UVa starters had played at least 32 minutes, with three playing 35 or more. Florida’s bench outscored Virginia’s 22-3.
“We did a good job of pushing tempo and playing our game,” Wilbekin said. “The 3s weren’t falling, but we found different ways to score and our defense created opportunities, as well.”
A second 3-pointer by Zeglinksi in as many possessions made it a six-point game, at the 17:26 mark, but Prather answered with just his second 3-pointer of the season, kicking in a 17-2 that pushed UF in front by 21 with nine minutes to go.
The lead grew to as large as 26, as the Gators raced to the third-highest point total against the Cavs this season. UVa entered the game surrendering an ACC-low 53.7 points per game and just 39.6 percent from the floor.
Senior forward Mike Scott scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds for the Cavs, but the runner-up ACC Player of the Year got in foul trouble. None of his teammates reached double-figures.
“They were the aggressor,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said after watching UF pummel his team 44-24 on points inside and 9-2 on the offensive glass. “They got the ball either in the paint or to the paint and we didn’t have an answer.”
Florida came here thinking if it survived against the methodical Cavs it would face an altogether different style of play against Missouri, which joins the Southeastern Conference next season.
Well, the Gators get an altogether different scenario, following Norfolk State’s stunning upset. The Spartans became just the fifth No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 since the NCAA expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
But Norfolk State plays fast like Mizzou, too. That’s OK with the Gators.
“We can play a lot of different ways,” Young said. “We showed today we’re more than a 3-point team. We’ve got balance.”
They’ve also got another game to play.
This time of year, that’s all that matters.