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Saturday March 30, 2013Elite Again: Gators Defeat Florida Gulf Coast to Advance to Elite Eight

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As the clock ticked down the final seconds, freshman guard Michael Frazier took a run-out pass at halfcourt and started a bee-line to the basket for what easily could have put a rim-rocking, at-the-buzzer exclamation point on this NCAA South Region semifinal.

Something like, "Dunk City this, fellas!"

But as Frazier entered basket-attack mode, Florida coach Billy Donovan, already a few steps toward greeting his Florida Gulf Coast counterpart, wheeled and screamed for Frazier to pull back and dribble out the clock.

The message had already been sent.

Nice run Eagles, but your dunking days are done.

The Gators, meanwhile, are headed back to the Elite Eight for a third straight year following a 62-50 Sweet 16 taming of everybody's underdog and darling FGCU before a Cowboys Stadium crowd of 40,639, the bulk of which was pulling hard for upstart Eagles of Fort Myers.

Big story, yes.

Big deal, said the Gators.

"We really didn't get caught up into how many people were here and who they were rooting for," junior forward Casey Prather said. "We had to win the game."

Senior guard Mike Rosario scored 15 points, junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin had 13 and Prather added in 11 off the bench, but this was an across-the-board team victory with everybody pitching in at pivotal times.

All eight UF players that took the court scored. Six had at least four rebounds. And while the Gators did not shoot the ball well (38.6 percent overall, 26.7 from 3-point range), they collectively swarmed and flustered FGCU point Brett Comer into a miserable night that discombobulated the Eagles' screening and cutting offense.

"You can't control if the ball goes in the basket," junior center Patric Young said. "But you can control your effort on the defensive end."

The reward for third-seeded Florida (29-7) is a date Sunday against fourth-seeded Michigan (29-7) in the regional championship game, with the winner advancing to next weekend's Final Four in Atlanta. UF is the only program in the nation to reach the Elite Eight each of the last three years.

"It's a great accomplishment to still be playing this deep in March again," senior guard Kenny Boynton said. "But we don't want to stop here. We want to keep going."

Most of the basketball nation wanted FGCU's Cinderella story to keep going.

For a good chunk of the first half, the Eagles (26-11) exuded that same flash and swagger that carried them to stunning upsets of second-seeded Georgetown and seventh-seeded San Diego State last weekend to become the first 15 seed to reach the Sweet 16 in NCAA history.

"We thought we could compete at a high level," Eagles coach Andy Enfield said. 

From the outset, they seemed right at home on the big stage, but the UF defense -- among the best in the nation all season -- proved too much over 40 minutes for the cagey Comer and friends.

Comer came in averaging 11 points and 12 assists in two NCAA wins. He finished with four points, seven assists and nine turnovers against UF's smothering, hedging and corralling of Florida Gulf Coast's ball screens.

"It affected us," Comer said.

Not initially.

FGCU forward Chase Fieler sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around guard Sherwood Brown's alley-oop dunk and another trey from guard Bernard Thompson, with Fieler, after his second 3, flashing the 3-ball sign while running back down court with the Eagles up 15-4 seven minutes into the game.

Highlight time, right?

After backup guard Christophe Varidel was fouled in the act of a 3 and made all his free throws, FGCU led 24-14 at the 5:23 mark, with the Gators shooting just 22 percent from the floor at that point, including an ugly 1-for-6 start from distance.

There was no panic on the UF bench.

"We knew it was going to be a 40-minute game," junior center Patric Young said.

"We were just trying to stay together and locked into the game," Wilbekin said. "We didn't want to let it get too out of hand. We were getting some easy shots, but they weren't really falling. We were just thinking about sticking to the process."

The process?

"Keep getting easy shots."

That's when Frazier got open for a couple clean treys. The kid who had missed all five of his tournament tosses last weekend, buried back-to-back 3s at one of the game's most critical phases, pulling UF within four and bringing his sideline to life.

After Prather stuck back an offensive rebound and Eric McKnight missed two free throws for FGCU, Wilbekin's driving pull-up jumper tied the game with 2:45 to go and Rosario's 3-pointer one minute later gave the Gators their first lead of the game.

When the halftime horn sounded, Florida was up 30-26 after scoring 16 of the half's final 18 points over the final 5:05.

"It would have been hard to get back in the game if we had allowed them to score," Donovan said.

UF, for sure, amped up its defense. While the Eagles shot 56 percent in the first half, the Gators forced 12 turnovers, had a 10-plus margin on offensive rebounds for an 11-2 edge in second-chance points.

"But we knew the start of the second half would be big," backup junior forward Will Yeguete said. "The coaches talked about that all week."

FGCU blitzed Georgetown with a 21-2 to start the second half. It got San Diego State for a 17-0 run out of the locker room.

That's why it was so key for Boynton to open with an old-fashion 3-point play and Rosario with back-to-back drives to the basket. That six-point lead quickly swelled to double-digits, a huge mental lift for the Gators, who from there kept a foot on Comer's throat.

"A team like that, you just can't let breathe," Frazier said.

Added Wilbekin: "We used our normal pick-and-roll defense to try and contain [Comer] and not let him make easy passes or even give him space to make easy passes."

The turnovers kept coming; a total of 20 for the game, some of them completely out of character for Enfield's team.

"I was shocked at some of the turnovers we had," he said. "It wasn't what Florida was doing, it was what we were doing to ourselves."

The Gators were able to keep the lead in the 8- to 12-point range most of the second half, with the Eagles once cutting it to seven, at 50-43, with 3:19 to go.

UF fans with fatalistic visions of Arizona, Missouri, Kentucky or Ole Miss dancing in their heads had to like seeing the Gators hit some free throws (although they missed some, too) and really liked when Rosario took an inbound pass out of timeout, caught FGCU's defense napping and sprinted to the goal for a throw-down and 11-point margin with 1:58 to play.

Dunk City, Gators style.

Donovan was OK with that one.

"I took a gamble on the play," Rosario said. "I wanted to make it for my teammates."

Good decision. Maybe even an elite one.

Like his team. Again.

 

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