Few fans saw this type of tournament run coming


Published: Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 23, 2012 at 3:10 a.m.

PHOENIX — So did you have Florida in your bracket going to the Elite Eight?

Didn’t think so.

Because how could you know?

How could you know that this team would take its game to a different level in the postseason?

How could you know that Erik Murphy would develop a nasty streak?

How could you know that Bradley Beal would start his NBA career early by playing like a pro in what well may be his only season in college?

No way of knowing.

No way of knowing this team that took nights off would play every game like it was life or death.

No way of knowing that Casey Prather would give this team a lift in the NCAA Tournament. If you saw that coming, you might want to try Vegas.

No way of knowing that this team was figuring it out while losing four of its last five regular-season games.

Everything we heard about Marquette or saw on TV was true in person. The Golden Eagles are physical, they run all day and they play hard. Florida matched the intensity, the physicality. Kenny Boynton was wearing out a path along the baseline chasing Darius Johnson-Odom.

And despite the fact Florida did not shoot well in the first half (13 of 30), the Gators had a six-point lead because they played as hard as they’ve played all season.

Still, my opinion hadn’t changed at halftime. I went into the game having no idea which team would win because they were evenly matched. Felt the same way with 20 minutes to play.

But in those 20 minutes, the Gators were the better team. They had their moments when it seemed like it was slipping away, but they regripped it, this Sweet 16 game.

At some point when this thing is over, you will step away and look at this team and you will consider this season a success no matter what happens the rest of the way. To get to the Elite Eight for the second straight year makes this team special. And for a guy like Erving Walker, to get this far as a junior and a senior already cements his legacy. He’s already played more minutes than any Gator ever. Now he gets to play some more.

And if I had a dollar for every person who told me after the Georgia loss that this team wouldn’t win another game, well, I’d upgrade to first class on Sunday.

This team looked dead in the water, but rallied to have a chance. And that’s all it’s about — having that chance. Billy Donovan has said it a million times — you keep plugging away and one year you get the right team and the right matchups and you get the confetti rain.

There’s no telling what the future holds. Louisville, which has won seven straight now after stifling Michigan State, didn’t get to this same point by accident.

When you think about this team and what you thought of it in the preseason, you didn’t expect an Elite Eight unless your optimism flowed like sweet tea. Donovan lost three starters, his entire frontcourt. He added only one piece to the puzzle in Bradley Beal. And still, this team is playing when Duke and Missouri and Michigan State are not.

We’re beyond wondering what would have happened if Will Yeguete had not been lost for the season.This team has found a way to overcome that loss. Several players were wearing T-shirts this week that read, “By Any Means.”

And against a team that was supposed to be too tough for the Gators, they found the means necessary.

In Donovan’s 16th season, the Gators made it to the tournament for the 12th time. We have come to take this for granted, that Florida will be dancing in March, especially because it’s 12 out of the last 14 years.

This latest ride has been a wild one with a lot of people thinking the exit is at the next mile marker.

But you’ll have to hold it for another couple of days.

Because we have a classic matchup coming up on Saturday in Phoenix. Donovan vs. Rick Pitino, his former coach and his mentor. Not to mention Richard Pitino, who was on Florida’s staff last year and made it into the Florida section at US Airways Center between games with his baby daughter.

But late Thursday night, it wasn’t Louisville anyone was thinking about. It was about a Florida team that left it all out on the floor so that it wouldn’t have to go home.

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

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