Friday March 22, 2013Gators Use Second-Half Burst to Run Away from Northwestern State in NCAA Opener
AUSTIN, Texas -- Five.
That's how many baskets the nation's highest-scoring team made in the second half Friday night against a Florida defense that rolled out of the locker room with a purpose.
"How many?" UF center Patric Young asked afterward.
Five. And just 15 points.
"Man, that's good defense," he nodded. "That's really good defense."
The kind that leads to blowouts in the NCAA Tournament, like third-seeded UF's 79-47 hammering of 14th-seed Northwestern State in the South Region at Erwin Center.
The Gators got 18 points and eight rebounds from senior forward Erik Murphy, plus 16 points and nine rebounds from Young, but it was the collective effort of the Florida defense turned the game into a laugher and advanced UF (27-7) into Sunday's regional quarterfinal against 11-seeded Minnesota (21-12), which defeated UCLA, 83-63, in the night's second game.
"I thought our guys really got into them in the second half," Gators coach Billy Donovan said.
That would be an understatement.
The Demons (23-9), champions of the Southland Conference Tournament, hung around by shooting 54.2 percent (13-for-24) to trail by only eight points, 40-32, at the break. Some of their baskets came just way too easy.
"They were fast. The guards were really fast. I don't think we expected them to be that fast," said backup forward Will Yeguete (8 rebounds). "They were running the floor and pushing the ball and they didn't care about anything."
Those kinds of teams (uncaring yet confident) are dangerous this time of year. Ask Georgetown or New Mexico State, for example.
It was when the Gators started caring about defense -- right about the time Donovan lit into them at halftime -- everything changed.
NSU shot 19.2 percent (5-for-26) in the second half -- and that was after making two of its first three field-goal tries. The Demons missed 20 of their final 23 shots and at one point went more than eight minutes without a field goal.
They came in averaging 81.5 points per game, but came 34 short.
"In the first half, we had slip-ups and guys were cutting back door and getting some wide-open layups," said UF senior guard Kenny Boynton, who along the way to scoring 11 points became the second player in school history to pass the 2,000-point milestone for his career. "In the second half, we came together as a team and started helping each other out."
The result was a UF defense that looked an awful lot like the wild-eyed maniacs who held 12 of their first 19 opponents to less than 50 points.
The Gators shot 47 percent for the game, dominated the glass 43-26, outscored the Demons 44-22 in the paint, forced 15 turnovers and did not allow as much as a 3-point attempt after halftime.
"Their bulk and their strength over the course of the game just really got us in the second half when we got ourselves in a situation where we didn't make shots," NSU coach Mike McConathy said. "Our offense spurs off our defense -- and we had two steals."
The Demons came into the game averaging 10 steals per game.
So UF not only defended the ball, the Gators took care of it, too.
The across-the-board performance out of the locker room was more along the lines of what Donovan wanted to see from his team in the tournament; a return to the "junkyard dog mentality," was how he put it to his players at the shoot-around earlier in the day.
"That's what we needed to do," junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. "Let the raw dog loose."
The rabid unleashing commenced when freshman guard Michael Frazier was fouled shooting a 3-point shot from the corner at the under-16 media timeout. The UF lead was 52-42 at 11:50 when Frazier came out of the timeout and knocked down all three free throws.
They kick-started a run of 16 straight points for the Gators that ended when Shamir Davis made a free throw at the 5:46 mark. By then, the Demons were down 25.
"Games are runs," said NSU forward DeQuan Hicks, who led his team with 12 points. "We just couldn't make our run."
After halftime, the Gators just wouldn't have it.
"We were just more focused. We made a commitment to each other to try and get the job done, whatever it takes," Yeguete said. "And you know what? Defending is what it took."
It's what the Gators do when they're at their best. And what they'll need, more than anything, to keep extending their season.