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Sunday March 24, 2013CLOSING TIME: Gators Hold Off Minnesota, Advance to Third Straight Sweet 16

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
AUSTIN, Texas -- Their lead of 22 points had been cut by more than half and the Florida Gators suddenly Sunday were in much more than a gut-check NCAA Tournament game with Minnesota.

They were fighting flashbacks, too.

Arizona. Missouri. Kentucky. Ole Miss.

Junior center Patric Young couldn't help but think to himself, "Oh no, please, not again." 

That's when senior forward Erik Murphy did something out of character; not just for him, but this team. He took initiative. He took responsibility. He took a leadership role at the most pivotal time of the season and called for a players-only moment on the sidelines.

"I'm not ready for this to be over!" Murphy yelled to the huddle of big bodies. "We are not going home."

Barely a minute later, senior guard Mike Rosario hit a 3-pointer from the corner, UF's second in as many possessions, and just like that UF's precarious seven-point margin was up to 13, on the way back to 18, and the Gators on their way to the Sweet 16 for a school-record third straight season.

Rosario, mere hours after being benched for lackadaisical play in UF's opening tournament game Friday, had his career game in a Florida uniform in scoring 25 points -- burying six of nine 3-point shots -- and leading his team to a 78-64 victory over the 11th-seeded Gophers in quarterfinal play of the NCAA South Region at Erwin Center.

"I felt I let my team down the other night," Rosario, the transfer from Rutgers said of the first NCAA Tournament start of his career, one that saw him benched for nearly the entire second half on the way to a rout of Northwestern State. "I had to make up for it."

And did he ever.

Due in great part to Rosario's heroics, the 3rd-seeded Gators (28-7) will face Florida Gulf Coast (26-10), the super-Cinderella and national media darling of this tournament, in the South semifinal Friday night at mammoth Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Rosario and Murphy (15 points, 4 rebounds) combined to score 40 points on 13-for-19 shooting and 8-for-13 from the arc, with the bulk of those coming in a near-flawless first half when Florida shot 65 percent from the floor, 50 percent from the arc and limited Minnesota to 39 percent to lead 48-27 at the break.
That was a season-high for first-half points for the Gators. Rosario had 17 and Murphy 15. Florida was in complete control.

In the UF locker room, though, Coach Billy Donovan promised his team the Gophers weren't going away.

"This is the NCAA Tournament," junior forward Casey Prather said. "Teams are desperate. Teams are proud. You can't take anything for granted. We knew they would come out and make their run."

It happened sooner than expect and far less resistance than Donovan would have liked.

Behind point guard Andre Hollins (25 points, 6-for-10 from 3), the Gophers started the second half on a 19-3 tear that cut UF's lead to 53-46 with 12:30 to play. Just like that, the Gophers had the momentum and the neutral-site crowd pulling for the underdog.

"We'd been in those situations before and lost," Young said. "The difference in this one was we stayed together and the recurrent theme was fight and push through it."

Wilbekin stopped the orange-and-blue bleeding with a much-needed 3-pointer from the corner; just the second field goal for UF through eight-plus minutes in the half.

Now, the Gators had to make a stand or else suffer another infuriating, confounding and crushing defeat ... only this one would end the season.

That's when Murphy, on the bench and saddled with four fouls, made his plea.

"It was tough because I almost felt like I was trapped in the second half, watching the whole game," said Murphy, who scored all 15 of his points in the first 20 minutes. "We had to come together, we had to play possession by and possession and do our best to eliminate easy things for them."

Almost on cue, Rosario bombed a 3-pointer. 

Coupled with Wilbekin's trey less than a minute before, the Gators began to inch away and did something they'd not done well the last few postseason games: make free throws.

The Gophers trailed by just eight, 60-52, when beefy center Trevor Mbakwe clanged a couple from the line. Will Yeguete, a 58.8-percent shooter, hit two. Patric Young, a 49.6-percent shooter, hit two more. UF hit 26 of 36 for the game (72.2 percent).

Meanwhile, for Minnesota, the Gophers second-half hot hand got icy down the stretch. So much of their energy had been spent fighting back, only to see UF hit a couple timely buckets.

"You're behind and you're fatigued," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said. "We put a lot of energy into trying to get back in the game."

Still, the lead was just 10, at 64-54, with just under five to play when Yeguete made a layup. Then Wilbekin drove for a pull-up jumper. And after a Gophers turnover, Rosario aced a 3-ball for seven unanswered points to push the Gators in front by 17 with a little more than three minutes to go.

The box score won't reflect that Florida won a close game, but try telling that to a team that was in a seven-point dogfight in the second half with very little going its way.

"We dug deep," Rosario said.

"And we did it on the big stage," senior guard Kenny Boynton added.

The Gators closed this one out and the post-game euphoria was sweet.

As in 16.

On to Big D.

"I just want to keep on going," Wilbekin said. "We all just want to keep going."

 

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