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Saturday March 17, 2012Gators Very Aware of Dangerous Norfolk State Squad

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

OMAHA, Neb. -- The Florida Gators, to a man, swear they weren’t cheering for either team Friday. 


Like most college basketball fans, players like to watch good games. There was none better than the epic up-and-down showdown between Missouri and underdog Norfolk State. CenturyLink Center was packed with a rowdy mix of those rooting for both teams, but also thousands -- including Kansas fans doing the schadenfreude thing to their rival -- who hopped on the Spartans bandwagon in hopes of witnessing NCAA Tournament history. 


“I just love good, close games and drama of it all,” UF senior point guard Erving Walker said. “And that was one of the best games I’ve ever seen.” 


One for the ages, as it turned out. 


When Phil Pressey’s desperation 3-point shot from just inside half court banged off the back of the rim, Norfolk State had pulled off one of the all-time NCAA upsets, shocking the nation’s third-ranked team 86-84. Only three times in the 27 years since the tournament expanded to 64 teams had a No. 15 seed bumped off a No. 2. 


What a post-game scene it was. 


And what a message the Spartans had for the Gators. 


“Our message to Florida is be ready,” backup guard Brandon Wheeless said. “We're going to come at them even harder than this.”


That’s exactly what Coach Billy Donovan and seventh-seeded Gators (24-10) expect from the surprising Spartans (26-9) when the two teams meet in Sunday’s second-round regional with a Sweet 16 berth on the line. 


“They played with great confidence and great belief, and they said it wasn’t a fluke,” Donovan remarked Saturday after running his all-time NCAA mark to a glowing 26-9. “Maybe from a national perspective people say this is an interesting Cinderella story, but you have to be of great belief in yourself to beat one of the best teams in the country -- so really the best team won.” 


That whole belief thing works both ways now. 


Florida, which utterly dismantled Virginia in a 71-45 loss that represented the Cavaliers’ most lopsided defeat of the season, must resist the notion that the path to advance is clearer now that one of the elite teams in the tournament field is gone, replaced by a tiny school that doesn’t even rate mid-major status. 


The rationale is simple, actually. 


“They beat Missouri,” reserve guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “That means they can beat us.” 


Florida accounted for the possibility of this scenario from the moment the NCAA bracket was revealed last Sunday. Once Donovan knew the three teams sharing UF’s pod, those potential opponents were assigned to his assistant coaches. Norm Roberts got Virginia. John Pelphrey got Missouri. Matt McCall got Norfolk State. 


By the time the Gators climbed onto their charter flight Wednesday for Nebraska, McCall had watched seven Spartans games. He saw a team that fell to Marquette by just two, beat Drexel and TCU, went 13-3 in the league, captured the MEAC Tournament title and now has an eight-game winning streak. 


“This isn’t a hard sell at all. Remember, it wasn’t just Missouri that went down to a No. 15 seed ... it was Duke, too,” McCall said. “Our guys know what can happen if we don’t come ready to play, focused and locked in on what we’re supposed to be doing.” 


Missouri was one of the best teams in the country wire to wire, winning the Big 12 Conference championship. The Tigers led their league in scoring (80.3 points per game), field-goal percentage (50.4), 3-point shooting (39.5) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6). Against Norfolk State, Mizzou exceeded every one of those statistics (84 points, 52.7 percent from the floor, 44.8 percent from the arc, 15 assists and just eight turnovers) -- and still lost. 


That’s because the Spartans had more fight in them, making the extra “winning plays,” as Donovan calls them, like chasing loose balls, doubling the Tigers on the offensive glass (14-7) and converting 16 second-chance points. 


Norfolk State got zero points from its bench, but three starters scored at least 20 points, led by 6-foot-10, 240-pound Kyle O’Quinn, who beasted for 26 on 10-for-16 shooting and grabbed 14 rebounds. The Spartans also belied their reputation as a poor outside shooting team (31 percent from 3-point range during the season) by making 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) Friday. 


“This time of year, you have to account for the 3,” McCall said. 


Finally, don’t forget that whole Cinderella thing, either. Everybody loves the underdog this time of year, which means the nation -- more importantly, almost an entire sold-out arena -- will be rooting for tiny Norfolk State (enrollment 5,400) against a program just five years removed from a second straight national championship. 


“When you’re the underdog, there’s no pressure on you,” Spartans coach Anthony Evans said. “We told ‘em to go out there and have fun.” 


That mentality combined with the backing of the crowd can make for a dangerous environment. 


“Coach explained that to us yesterday,” said freshman guard Bradley Beal, who stuffed Friday’s stat sheet with 14 points and 11 rebounds. “Everybody else in the gym is going to be rooting against [us]. He said we have to play through it.” 


Added Wilbekin: “It’ll probably like playing Kentucky.” 


With a different outcome, the Gators hope. 


“We know that upsets happen this time of year. We saw a bunch yesterday,” Walker said. “We just don’t want to be that team.” 




No. 25 Florida vs. Norfolk State      

Tip-off: Sunday, 6:10 p.m. (CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.) 

Records: Florida 24-10; Norfolk State 26-9        

TV: TNT (w/Marv Albert, Steve Kerr and Craig Sager) 

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 220/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes; Norfolk State notes 

Need to know: The seventh-seeded Gators are looking to reach the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in school history. They put themselves in this position with a convincing 71-45 rout of 10th-seeded Virginia in Friday’s opening-round play. ... UF is now 26-9 in the NCAA Tournament under Coach Billy Donovan. ... Florida and Norfolk State will play for the first time. The Spartans, by virtue of their upset of No. 2-seed Missouri, became one of just six No. 15 seeds ever to win a game in the NCAAs (in their first tournament appearance, no less). No seed that high has won a second game. ... The Gators trounced the Cavaliers despite making just four of 23 (17.4 percent) from the 3-point line. That because Florida went 24-for-30 (80 percent) inside the 3-point line. UF will seek that kind of efficiency from its offense versus NSU, while hoping its collective shooting eye returns from long-range. ... All five Florida starters average double-figure scoring. Junior G Kenny Boynton (16 ppg) remains the team’s leader, even though Boynton has shot just 25.7 percent overall and 19 percent (4-for-21) from the arc over the last five games. ... G Bradley Beal (14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and senior PG Erving Walker (12 ppg, 4.6 apg) finish the three-guard combo that makes UF go. C Patric Young (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and F Erik Murphy (10.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg) figure to have their hands full up front against Norfolk’s 6-10, 240-pund manchild C Kyle O’Quinn (15.9 ppg, 10.4 rpg), who had 26 points and 14 rebounds against Mizzou. The Gators hope to get a second straight big bench boost from backup forward Casey Prather (career-high 14 points vs. Virginia), especially at the front of their press and in double-teaming O’Quinn in the halfcourt, thus forcing him to pass out of the block. O’Quinn has just 48 assists compared to 90 turnovers this season. ... Norfolk has size in the backcourt, with both Chris McEachin (12.8 ppg) and Pendarvis Williams (11.8 ppg) going 6-6, which could give the 5-7 Walker and 6-1 Boynton some problems on both ends. 



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