Workmanlike effort ends Eagles' hype
Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 3:37 a.m.
ARLINGTON, Texas — The 3s were falling, “Dunk City” was roaring and the underdogs were riding the emotion like a surfer on his best day.
But what the Florida Gulf Coast team couldn't know was all of the things this Florida basketball team has seen this year.
Game that starts at 10:38 p.m. on a raised floor in a football stadium in front of a bandwagon crowd rooting against them? Not a problem.
An idiot fan in the second row behind the Gator bench screaming, “Billy Donovan you suck!” throughout the second half? No worries.
A 15-4 deficit to start the game? Watch this run.
Florida locked down on defense and locked in with its focus. The Gators weathered FGCU's last punch by making the plays down the stretch.
“We just had to start getting back in transition,” senior Kenny Boynton said. “They were getting too many easy layups.
“But there really isn't anything we haven't seen this year. We just had to fight back.”
This grizzled team saw two of its bench players turn in inspired performances. Will Yeguete and Casey Prather played as if they had relatives out here they didn't want to leave.
For all of the flash of the Eagles, Florida showed how you hunker down and defend. They forced 21 turnovers and allowed the Gulf Coasters only 35 points over the final 35 minutes of the game.
Sorry to spoil the national lovefest, but on this night it wasn't about supermodels and toothy grins. It was about putting on your hard hat and winning an NCAA Tournament game.
“I think we calmed down a little bit,” junior Scottie Wilbekin said. “Early in that game we had some loud turnovers.”
And the louder the turnovers, the louder the crowd.
But for as cute a story as Florida Gulf Coast was, Cinderella doesn't win in a street fight. Sometime after midnight, the run ended because Florida wouldn't let the Eagles make a run. Their 15-4 start was it.
“There were going to be runs in the game,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “They're that kind of team.”
But Florida was able to neutralize FGCU point guard Brett Comer, forcing him into nine turnovers. They cut off passing lanes and knocked away lob passes that usually lead to “Dunk City.”
And they had just enough on offense. Two runs did it for the Gators — the 16 straight points in the first half that turned a 24-17 FGCU lead into a 30-24 Florida lead and the seven straight points to start the second half.
Other than that, it was simply a dogfight.
“The defense they play is just weird,” Wilbekin said. “It was hard for us to get into a flow. It became a grind-it-out game.
“It was one of the worst games we've played this year.”
But it was good enough.
The Gators will now face Michigan, which made one of those amazing NCAA Tournament comebacks to beat Kansas in overtime Friday night. It will be interesting to see how the Gators handle Trey Burke, who had 23 points in the second half.
But that's for another day. Friday night was about a basketball program that went to one regional final before Donovan and on Sunday will play in its sixth with him. The story is about a couple of seniors in Boynton and Erik Murphy, who at times toyed with the idea of leaving Gainesville but will instead leave a lasting legacy.
This is about a team that is playing in its third straight Elite Eight. No other team that will join them can say they've made three straight runs this deep in the last three years.
“I'm proud of what they've been able to do up to this point in time,” Donovan said. “I think they've been committed to working and committed to trying to get better together.”
Mostly, Friday night and Saturday morning was about a team which has seen it all, experienced everything — including being booed as it ran on the court at the start of a neutral-site game — and is still playing.
“I feel like that just motivates us,” Mike Rosario said of the pro-Florida Gulf Coast crowd. “With the atmosphere like this, we have to come in just locked in on things. Everyone against us, we just have to block everything out and stay connected.”
A season that started on a battleship continues on a raised floor in a football stadium Sunday.
No matter how much it disappointed the people who believe in fairy tales.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.