New identity has Gators feeling Sweet

Gators peaking at precisely the right time


Published: Sunday, March 18, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, March 19, 2012 at 12:17 a.m.

OMAHA, Neb. — On Friday, Norfolk State was the team that messed up everybody's bracket. On Sunday, Florida was the team that messed up Norfolk State.

The Gators didn't just end the NCAA buzz surrounding the Spartans, they stepped on their necks. Florida beat Norfolk State the way you would expect an elite program to beat a MEAC team … in December.




But this was in the NCAA Tournament round of 32. This was March. And this was a team that looked like it was playing with a St. Patrick's Day hangover against a team that appears to be re-inventing itself.

“That took a little time,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

During the days preparing for Kentucky to end the regular season and the days leading up to the SEC Tournament, Florida had to figure out what it would be without Will Yeguete. In a three-day sweep of two teams from Virginia, the Gators showed they might have found the round pegs that fit into the round holes.

Against Norfolk State, there wasn't much they didn't do well. They followed Donovan's game plan on defense perfectly, stifling the effervescent Kyle O'Quinn and limiting the open 3-point shots. The guards crashed the boards to get one rebound after the other. And on the offensive end, there wasn't much the Spartans could do to slow down Florida's attack.

“Guys were shooting with confidence,” said Erving Walker. “We got some extra work in the gym (Sunday morning).”

In dispatching one of the Cinderellas of this year's tournament, Florida used a scoring run that was almost obscene. College basketball is about runs, 10-2 here or 11-3 there.

But 25-0?

“I've never been a part of anything like that,” said junior Kenny Boynton. “It just showed our level of focus.”

The run effectively ended the game and you could hear channels being switched all over America. The darlings of Friday were the disappointments of Sunday. The may have said all the right things leading up to the game, but once the Gators put the hammer down the body language of the Norfolk State players spoke volumes.

“They played good defense. We played bad offense,” said O'Quinn. “It was just tough all around for us. The ball just didn't go in the hoop. And every time we'd get a break, they'd hit a 3. We're human beings. It killed our momentum.”

The momentum built during the 25-0 run like a tidal wave. Down 6-4, Boynton hit his first 3-point shot since the Alabama game of the SEC Tournament. For the next few minutes, you just wanted to sit back and watch the carnage.

Florida made five 3-pointers during the run. Bradley Beal scored seven points during the splurge. Norfolk State knew it's dance card had run out.

“They kind of shut down from then on,” Beal said.

You can dismiss Florida for having an easy draw. Virginia wasn't very good and Norfolk State certainly made Florida's part of the bracket a lot easier by dismissing Missouri. But that's what it's about this time of year.

It's not just who you are, it's who you play. And while the length of Norfolk State's guards were a concern, they weren't for long.

We've talked all year about the maturity and chemistry of this team. Both were on display Sunday night. Because it would have been easy to think a team that beat Bethune-Cookman by three points a week ago could not stay with the mighty Gators.

But instead of thinking about Phoenix, they kept their mindset in Omaha. The perfect illustration — Donovan told his guards they had to rebound. Beal had nine, Boynton eight and Walker three. “It usually takes Kenny five games to get eight rebounds,” Donovan said.

But not on this day and not on this stage.

And now the team that had been buried as a non-factor after the regular season is not only breathing, it is headed to its second straight Sweet 16. For a guy like Walker, who suffered through two NIT seasons after he arrived at Florida, it has to be especially gratifying.

“It's a great feeling,” said the senior. “It would be an even better feeling to get to the Final Four. So we still have work to do.”

But because of the work they have done, a season that appeared to be heading south is heading west.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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