Florida's focus on finishing as winners

Florida players huddle during practice at the Frank Erwin Center on Thursday in Austin, Texas. The Gators will face the Northwestern State Demons on Friday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 9:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 9:46 p.m.


NCAA Tournament

Who: No. 3 seed Florida Gators (26-7) vs. No. 14 seed Northwestern State Demons (23-8)
When: 7:27 p.m.
Where: Frank Erwin Center, Austin, Texas
Gainesville-area TV: truTV
Gainesville-area radio: 103.7 FM

AUSTIN, Texas — Florida begins its 13th NCAA Tournament in 17 seasons under Billy Donovan looking to break through. The Gators haven't made a Final Four since 2007, but have been oh-so close in back-to-back Elite Eight runs in 2011 and 2012. With the core of those teams back this season, Florida cruised to a Southeastern Conference regular-season title and 26-7 record. But for Florida senior guard Kenny Boynton, there's unfinished business. “We want to go out as winners,” Boynton said. “Our goal is to get to the national championship and win it, nothing less than that.” The third-seeded Gators will begin that quest tonight against No. 14 seed Northwestern State.

Florida enters the game as a 20.5-point favorite and has not lost to a seed lower than 12 during the Donovan era. But the Gators are wary of the problems Northwestern State presents. The up-tempo Demons lead the NCAA in scoring at 81 points per game, while forcing 17 turnovers per game. “We have a target on us being the No. 3 seed and being the experienced team that we are,” Florida senior guard Mike Rosario said. “We feel like that we've got to come out, just aggressive, and just be the Florida Gators.” Donovan said he understands his team's Final Four or bust mentality. As a senior at Providence in 1987, he remembered that goal after appearing in just one NIT in his first three seasons. “Every kid who gets into this tournament, that's a dream,” Donovan said. “I just think those guys may have been a little bit more outspoken. I think if you checked with Northwestern State or Illinois or UCLA or Minnesota, I think that's every kid's dream. “I think they are also mature enough and understand that the most important thing right now is what's in front of us today, because tomorrow in this tournament is never guaranteed or promised.” Florida is beginning what it hopes to be a Texas two-step to the Final Four in Atlanta. If the Gators can get by their first two games in Austin, they will move on to Arlington, Texas for the NCAA South Region semifinals and finals. To make that run, Florida will need to get back to moving and sharing and taking care of the basketball. Florida's assist-to-turnover ratio is 63 to 63 in its six March games. Florida has had four players reach double figures in scoring just twice in its last nine games. In its first 24 games, the Gators had four or more scorers reach double figures 12 times. “You know, 20 assists per game is a big margin, but we're capable of doing it,” Rosario said. “I feel like that when we put ourselves in that situation of getting 20 assists per game and less turnovers, we can be a really, really good team.” Given UF's recent history, another deep run is possible. Florida is just 5-4 in its last nine games, but the Gators also struggled coming into the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Florida had lost four of five going into its regional in Omaha and was a No. 7 seed before its Elite Eight run. In last season's Elite Eight, Florida was unable to hold an 11-point lead in a 72-68 loss to Louisville. Those issues with close losses and blown leads have carried over into this season. Florida is 0-6 in games decided by six points and failed to hold double-digit leads in losses to Arizona, Missouri and Mississippi. “It's been a recurring theme of us not finishing big games, of having a lead and not finishing those games,” Florida junior center Patric Young said. “That's driven us this whole season. We still struggle with that a little bit, but I think we should finally understand what it takes to get it done.” A deeper run is possible if Florida can solve those issues in close games. “We're a veteran team, but last year is last year,” Boynton said. “We can't dwell on the past. But right now, it's a new season. We learned from our mistakes from last year. We're ready to make another run in the tournament.” FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS G Kenny Boynton 6-2 Sr. 12.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg G Mike Rosario 6-3 Sr. 12.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Jr. 9.0 ppg, 5.0 apg F Erik Murphy 6-10 Sr. 12.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg C Patric Young 6-9 Jr. 10.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg NORTHWESTERN STATE PROBABLE STARTERS G Shamir Davis 6-0 Sr. 12.5 ppg, 2.2 apg G Gary Stewart 6-4 Jr. 5.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg F Patrick Robinson 6-6 Jr. 3.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg F DeQuan Hicks 6-7 Jr. 14.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg C O.J. Evans 6-10 Sr. 3.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg Notes: Florida is playing in its 18th NCAA Tournament in school history and 13th in 17 seasons under Billy Donovan. Donovan is 28-10 (.733) in NCAA Tournament games, the third-highest percentage among active coaches behind North Carolina's Roy Williams (61-20, .753) and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (79-23, .775). … The Gators rank first in the SEC and third in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 53.7 points per game. The Gators have held 12 opponents under 50 points and 23 opponents under 60 points. … Northwestern State went 2-1 against the nation's top defense, Stephen F. Austin, averaging 64.3 points against a team that holds opponents to 51 points per game. … Offensively, the Gators will be striving for more balance. Florida's assist-to-turnover ratio in its last nine games is 100 to 93. The Gators are 5-4 during that span. … Florida senior Kenny Boynton is at 1,995 points, five shy of joining Ronnie Williams as the second 2,000-point scorer in school history. … Erik Murphy (1,015 points) became the 49th player in school history to surpass the 1,000-point mark with his 27-point performance against LSU last week. … Northwestern State is making its third NCAA Tournament in school history. The Demons are 2-2 in their previous two NCAA Tournament appearances. As a 14-seed, Northwestern State upset No. 3 seed Iowa 64-63 in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. “Everybody is just reminiscing on the 2006 team,” Northwestern State senior James Hulbin said. “We're just pretty much trying to set our pace for our own memories in the future, future players at our program too. We're playing with a lot of confidence, we just play our game.”

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