Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
PHOENIX -- Like every other player in the Florida locker room, junior forward Erik Murphy spoke in hushed tones. Were it his choice, Murphy probably wouldn’t have spoken at all.
“A lot of players don’t get this chance in their entire lives,” Murphy said, barely audible. “We got it two years in a row ... and the same thing happened.”
Having reached the coveted Elite Eight for the second straight season, the Gators were determined to go to USAirways Center and avenge the painful memory of the most gut-wrenching NCAA Tournament loss in the program’s basketball history.
They relived it, instead.
Down by 11 with just under eight minutes to play, fourth-seeded Louisville amped up and switched up its defense, holding fourth-seeded Florida to a measly three points the rest of of the way and dealt the Gators a crushing 72-68 defeat in the NCAA West Region championship game, denying UF a fifth trip to the Final Four in front of 13,456 at USAirways Center.
The meltdown came nearly a year to the day UF squandered an 11 point-lead with just over nine minutes to go and lost in overtime to Butler at the South Region final in New Orleans.
“Totally different,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said of the two games.
Maybe so, but the feeling of emptiness was altogether too familiar.
“It feels terrible,” teary-eyed senior point guard Erving Walker said after the final game of his magnificent career. “I don't know any other way to put it. Everyone is devastated. We all hurt.”
Freshman forward Chane Behanan, named the region’s Most Valuable Player, scored 17 points, with all but four after halftime and nine in the final 8:03, including his team’s last two field goals. Guard Russ Smith scored 19 points, with his free throw with just 2.8 seconds remaining the dagger that finished off the Gators (26-11) and put the Cardinals (30-9) into their ninth Final Four, their first since 2005.
The win also gave Louisville coach Rick Pitino his seventh in as many tries against his beloved protege. Donovan was Pitino’s point guard when the two guided Providence to its only Final Four 25 years go. When Pitino took over at Kentucky in 1989, he gave “Billy the Kid” his first coaching job.
Saturday, Pitino gave Donovan one of the toughest defeats of his coaching career.
“I said [Friday] that it wasn’t difficult to play against one of my former coaches ... but this one was difficult,” Pitino said after reaching his sixth Final Four. “For 32 minutes, they outplayed us. As much as I felt like celebrating, it really hurt. Billy did a masterful job of coaching.”
His players did a masterful job of executing the plan before Pitino made the right moves to beat it.
Florida shot 66.7 percent (14-for-21) overall in the first half and a nuclear 72.7 (8-for-11) from 3-point range. Along the way, four different Cardinals picked up two fouls, including make-‘em-go point guard Peyton Siva. But despite the hot hand, the Gators led by a modest eight points, 41-33, after six turnovers led to seven Louisville points.
In the second half, the Gators managed to stretch the lead out to double-digits after Pitino was hit with a technical foul for arguing the fourth foul called against Siva with 10:56 remaining.
Walker hit four straight free throws to give UF an 11-point edge, which was how things stood 2 1/2 minutes later when Walker lofted a high pass for the basket that skying center Patric Young (11 points, 6 rebounds) caught with one hand and violently flushed to make it 65-54 with just over eight minutes remaining, sending Florida’s fans into a fevered pitch.
The Gators scored three points the rest of the way.
“We knew they were going to make a run at some point,” said UF freshman Bradley Beal who scored 14 points, grabbing seven rebounds and pitching four assists. “We thought we had control of it and we thought we'd be able to keep them at bay.”
That’s when Pitino made his move.
He dropped the match-up zone that confounded Big East Conference foes all season and helped Louisville lead the league in field-goal percentage defense. Instead, the Cards just matched up man for man.
“That caused us some problems,” Beal said. “We sort of froze.”
So did their shooting.
After Young’s dunk, the Gators had made 23 of their 36 shots (63.8 percent). From there, they made just one of their last 12.
Some of them were forced, including a hurried, contested, off-the-dribble pull-up from Boynton with 1:25 to go and UF down by a point.
“There was a couple I was not happy with,” Donovan said “But if you would have told me we were going to shoot 50 percent against their defense and 40 from three, I would have taken that. I really thought getting them out of that zone would have played better into our hands. I just don't think we did a great job.”
Behanan, a 15-percent 3-point shooter, started the comeback with a trey from the top of the key. That was the start of 10-0 run for the Cards; Behanan with half, Jones the other.
After Young made one of two free throws, Behanan tied the game on a post move with just over three minutes left, but Boynton’s driving bankshot gave the Gators what turned out to be their final lead -- and points -- at 68-66 with 2:38 remaining.
UF led by one at the 1-minute mark when Behanan posted Murphy to give Louisville its first lead since six minutes into the game. A pair of misses at Florida’s end had the Cards with the ball and a shot-clock differential of about 10 seconds.
That’s when Beal, who had carried the team through the postseason, stole a pass from Russ Smith in the lane, only to stumble trying to gain his footing. He was whistled for a travel with 17.2 seconds left.
“I have to be strong with the ball and be more careful in those situations,” a distraught Beal said afterward.
Chris Smith’s free throws made it a 3-point game. Beal misfired a game-tying trey attempts, chased the rebound and pitched to Boynton, who also missed as Louisville clutched the ball with two seconds left and commenced the celebration.
And Florida’s devastation.
“It’s almost exactly the same,” soft-spoken backup guard Scottie Wilbekin said in an even softer voice, reflecting back that Butler bummer. “We had control nearly the entire game. We let things just slip away.”
Three weeks ago, few would have thought the Gators could put themselves a position to be so utterly and cruelly sapped with disappointment, mere minutes from the Final Four.
“We were so close,” Young said. “We didn’t think our season was going to end. We thought we’d be cutting the nets down today.”
He shook his head.
“We thought so last year, too.”