Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
PHOENIX – The gravity of the situation hit as they shook hands after the game. Rick Pitino was going to the Final Four and his protégé, Gators coach Billy Donovan, was going home.
“It hurts to see Billy lose,’’ Pitino said 15 minutes later.
The storyline of Pitino and Donovan facing each other for the first time in the postseason loomed over the NCAA West Region final Saturday.
Louisville overcame an 11-point deficit in the final eight minutes to win 72-68, earning Pitino his sixth trip to the Final Four. Donovan was shooting for his fourth trip in 16 seasons at Florida.
Donovan played for Pitino at Providence and later served as his assistant at Kentucky for five seasons.
“For me personally it's a great moment,’’ Pitino said. “I really now wish it didn't happen against Billy. I love him so much. But he knows that.
“And the first thing he said to me when we walked out, I said, ‘Billy, I feel bad, I feel terrible, man.’ He said, ‘Are you kidding me, Coach? I am so happy for you.’
“That just didn't happen in this world. I've had six children and I really consider him a seventh.”
In Donovan’s post-game interview sessions, he had this to say in return.
“I don't think any coach enjoys losing in this type of situation,” Donovan said. “But if I had to lose, it would be to him; to have him towards the end of his career enjoy this experience.”
BEAL DOESN’T DEAL WITH NBA SPECULATION
Mere minutes after the most bitter loss of his short college career, Florida’s fabulous freshman Bradley Beal was hit with the inevitable question about this future.
The 6-foot-3, 210-pound Beal carried the Gators through their surprising run to the Elite Eight and is considered a slam-dunk lottery selection should he choose to enter the NBA Draft. Some of the latest projections, in fact, have Beal ranked behind only Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.
Beal, however, was in no mood to speak to any speculation Saturday after Florida’s 68-64 loss to Louisville in the NCAA West Region championship game at US Airways Center.
It was tough for him to speak at all.
“I'm really not focusing on next year right now,” said Beal through glossy eyes. “I'm just still affected by this loss right now. I just want to bond with the team still. We had a tough loss.”
The loss had to extra tough on Beal, who was called for traveling after stealing a pass for Cardinals guard Russ Smith with 17.2 seconds and UF down by just one point.
Beal isn’t the only Florida player who has some decisions to make in the coming weeks. Junior guard Kenny Boynton is believed to be considering turning pro, but like his rookie teammate that wasn’t on his mind.
“Right now, I’m just shocked by this loss -- too shocked to think about the future,’’ Boynton said.
Sophomore center Patric Young has already said he intends to return to UF for his junior season.
When Louisville guard Peyton Siva fouled out with 3:58 left in the game and Florida leading 65-64, the Cardinals’ chances took a severe hit.
That is until unpredictable Russ Smith asserted himself more, including back-to-back baskets that cut Florida’s lead to 65-64, and later hitting a pair of free throws with 17 seconds left that put the Cardinals up by three, 71-68.
“Believe it or not, I think sometimes Russ Smith is more dangerous than Siva because he really has got a fearless spirit about himself,’’ Donovan said. “Siva is a little more under control. Russ Smith is sometimes crazy, you know, with some of the things he does.”
Smith’s good side was on display Saturday. He finished with a game-high 19 points and had five rebounds. What was Smith – who Pitino refers to as Russ-Diculous for some of the good and bad plays he makes – thinking when Siva took a seat?
“Man, I was actually pretty nervous because this is one of the first times that I really handled the one in like a situation that was so serious,’’ Smith said. “And it could have potentially cost us the season. I had to find a way to calm myself down and get the job done.”
Beal was the only Gator on the West Regional All-Tournament Team. He joined Siva, Gorgui Dieng of Louisville, Draymond Green of Michigan State, and Louisville’s Chane Behanan on the team.
Behanan was named the Most Outstanding Player for his performance down the stretch of Saturday’s game when he scored nine of his 17 points in the final minutes.
HOT ... THEN COLD
Louisville has played masterful defense all season, but the Cardinals had to be freaking over how the Gators shot 67 percent overall in the first half and nearly 73 percent from 3-point range. The Cardinals made a conscious decision to thwart UF from the arc after halftime.
“They were taking our 3-point line away,” Young said. “We shot it so well in the first. In the second half, I don’t think we made anywhere close the number of 3s we made in the first half.”
No, they didn’t.
The Gators went 0-for-9 from distance after intermission.
GOODBYE, LITTLE BIG MAN
In the final game of his career, senior point guard Erving Walker scored 12 points, grabbed three rebounds and dished seven assists. The 5-foot-8 fireplug from Brooklyn will leave UF ranked first in school history in assists (547), second in 3-pointers made (285) and games played (144), and fourth all-time in points with 1,777.
“I had a great four years,” an emotional Walker said at the post-game podium. “We were so close. We just let it slip away.”
--Florida dropped to 21-2 when leading at halftime. The Gators led 41-33 at the break Saturday.
--Louisville outscored Florida 15-0 in points off turnovers. The Gators had 14 giveaways to just six for the Cards.
--The Gators hit eight 3-pointers on Saturday, finishing the season with 357, surpassing the previous school record set in 2006-07 by 60.