Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
PHOENIX -- The game began exactly how Florida’s coaches told their players it would. Marquette would be the aggressor from the outset and it was up to the Gators to respond to the high intensity and energy.
Four minutes in, UF was 2-for-10 from the floor and had been doubled up on the boards.
“I thought our guys came out on their heels a little bit,” Coach Billy Donovan said. “And I told them so.”
Instead of staying on those heels, the Gators dug them deep into the USAirways Arena floor, withstood the onslaught and bounced back from those first few in-your-face minutes to answered the challenge put to them.
“Coach got on us,” backup guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We responded.”
In a most elite way.
Freshman guard Bradley Beal was spectacular in scoring 21 points and grabbing six rebounds, while backcourt mates Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton added 11 points each, as the seventh-seeded Gators gave the No. 3-seed Golden Eagles a dose of their own belligerence in a 68-58 upset victory in the NCAA West Region semifinals Thursday night.
With the win, Florida (26-10) advanced for the second straight year into the coveted Elite Eight, where the Gators will face fourth-seeded Louisville (29-9) Saturday at 1:30 p.m. EST with the survivor advancing to the Final Four. The Cardinals upset top-seeded Michigan State 57-44 in the night’s first semifinal.
Much will be made the next two days about the UF-UL matchup, which will pit Donovan against his beloved mentor Rick Pitino, who Donovan called “the most influential person in his life” outside his parents.
“But the game is about the players who competing,” Donovan added.
And the Gators will be competing in that game because of how they out-competed the high-flying, high-intensity Eagles (27-8) in the previous one.
Remember, this was Marquette, the runner-up in the conference, armed with two of the league’s top three scorers and a fast-breaking offense that fed off an aggressive, attacking defense. That combination was slowed down by virtually no one this season. The Eagles led the Big East in scoring (75.9 points per game) and shot nearly 46 percent for the season.
“Our defense won the game,” Walker said.
Against the Gators, Marquette scored its second-fewest points of the season and shot a season-worst 30.8 percent. In fact, burly Eagles forward Jae Crowder, the Big East Conference player of the year who scored just 15 points on 5-for-15 shooting, may want to re-evaluate the statement he made earlier in the week about Florida’s shortcomings on defense.
Actually, Coach Buzz Williams did it for him.
“They were really, really good,” Williams said after watching UF also hold guard Darius Johnson Odom to just 14 points, four under his average. “Credit goes to their defensive game plan relative to what they were trying to do offensively.”
UF, as always, tried to space the floor against Marquette’s man defense and create open shots. That was a problem initially, as the Gators missed eight of their first 10, but the Eagles weren’t doing very much when they had the ball except on scoring opportunities off long rebounds and transition.
“We knew if we could just get back, we’d be fine,” center Patric Young said. “We knew we could defend these guys. They weren’t exactly reinventing the wheel when it came to offense.”
Florida trailed 30-27 with four minutes to play in the first half when it kicked in a run of nine straight points. Beal (8-for-10 from the floor, 3-for-5 from 3-point range) started with a three and finished it with a driving bank shot. In between, it was Young (7 points, 9 rebounds) with a slam and Boynton getting a bucket off a goal-tend call.
UF never trailed again, with Marquette drawing no closer than four points the rest of the way -- and that was only after the first basket of the second half.
“They scored 30 points in the first half, but 24 of those were either on offensive rebounds or in transition,” Donovan said. “I told our guys that I felt good with the way we were playing defense, and because they were giving us shots left and right.”
Forward Erik Murphy, one of the team’s best perimeter shooters, was getting some of those shots, but went 0-for-5, with three of those misses from distance, before the break.
“We all just told him to keep on shooting,” Wilbekin said. “We’re a team of shooters. If we’re open, we shoot.”
Murphy never got on track (he finished 3-for-13), but he chose a most opportune time to knock down his lone 3-pointer in eight attempts. It came at 15:11 of the second half and started another run of eight straight points to stretch UF to its first double-digit lead.
After Beal bombed a three, Murphy rolled in a drive down the lane to push the Gators to their biggest lead, 48-34, at the 13:21 mark.
“This time of year is about grinding,” Murphy said. “You just keep playing. That’s what I did. That’s what we all did.”
Twice Marquette cut the UF lead to six, the first time when Todd Mayo hit a 3-pointer with 3:14 to go, part of an Eagles’ 7-0 that got the sold-out crowd of 15,833 excited. But Walker nailed a huge trey with the shot clock winding down to take the lead back to nine, only to have Crowder made his only 3-pointer of the night (on seven attempts) with 1:25 to go to trim the margin back to six.
From there, it was a foul and free-throw fest, with Boynton sinking five of six -- the Gators went 13-for-15 (87.5 percent) from the line for the night -- and Beal finishing the game out with a run-out slam dunk with 32 seconds to go.
The celebration was on.
“It means everything,” Walker said of going to the Elite Eight for a second straight season and helping the program get there for the fifth time since 2000. “After [Friday], it’ll be down to just eight teams and hopefully we can be one that continues to march on.”
Two weeks ago, the Gators went to New Orleans and beat Alabama in the second-round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament to snap a four-game losing streak to end the regular season.
This run might have been tough to imagine then.
“Maybe for a lot of people, not for me,” Murphy said. “Within this team, we knew what we were capable of, but we just hadn’t clicked together. We needed to figure some things out.”
As Donovan was set to address his celebrating players in the post-game locker, he was interrupted just before he spoke by backup guard Mike Rosario.
“We’re elite,” Rosario said with a grin.
One of eight that can make that claim.