Top-seeded Florida tested by Albany in tourney opener

Florida Gators forward Casey Prather (24) shoots a layup against the Albany Great Danes in the first half during the second round of the NCAA tournament at the Amway Center on Thursday, March 20, 2014 in Orlando, Fla. Florida defeated Albany 67-55 and will play Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 6:14 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 11:00 p.m.

ORLANDO — It was supposed to be easier than this.


Saturday's game

Who: No. 1 seed Florida Gators (33-2) vs. No. 9 seed Pittsburgh Panthers (26-9)
When: 12:15 p.m.
Where: Amway Center, Orlando
Radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM

Nobody expected No. 16 seed Albany to hang around as long as it did. Certainly no one thought, that with 14:32 left in the second half, Albany guard Peter Hooley would go to the foul line with the chance to give the 22-point underdog Great Danes the lead.

But that's how it can unfold sometimes in March. Top-seeded Florida (33-2) made enough plays and tightened up enough on defense down the stretch to pull away for a 67-55 win over Albany before 16,074 at Amway Center. But UF's school-record 27th straight win in the Round of 64 had a surreal feel.

In a postgame TBS interview, Florida coach Billy Donovan said he was “baffled” with his team. The message was equally terse in Donovan's postgame locker room address with his players.

“He said we were lucky to get one more (game) and if we played like today, that would be the last one we get,” Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We just have to flush this game, move on to the next thing.”

That “next thing” for UF is a matchup with ninth-seeded Pittsburgh, which looked impressive in a 77-48 win over eighth-seeded Colorado. The start time for the Round of 32 game on Saturday has yet to be determined.

Right now, the Gators look like a teetering one seed.

“Maybe we took some things for granted,” Wilbekin said. “We didn't play like we need to in the NCAA Tournament. I think we all know that and realize that and plan to make a better effort next game.”

Fortunately, Florida got a big effort from its bench. Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith (16 points) and freshman point guard Kasey Hill (10 points, two steals) accounted for 26 of UF's 67 points.

Senior guard DJ Evans led all scorers with 22 points for Albany (19-14).

“They have a legitimate chance to win a national title, and I thought we really challenged them tonight,” Albany coach Will Brown said of the Gators. “It was a great effort overall by our team.”

Finney-Smith and senior forward Casey Prather led the Gators with 16 points apiece. Senior center Patric Young posted his first double-double of the season (10 points, 10 rebounds). Wilbekin had 10 points and four assists.

Upsets happen in March, but a 16 seed has never beaten 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators may have carried some of that overconfidence on the court early, especially on the defensive end of the floor. Albany gained some early confidence by hitting 10 of its first 15 shots. Several came on wide-open, mid-range jumpers.

“We let them get loose for too many throwbacks on mid-range jumpers,” Wilbekin said. “ Wide-open ones, and so we just had to play harder, really. We were a step slow defensively all first half.”

Florida led just 34-28 at halftime, allowing Albany to shoot 46.2 percent from the field. Florida did hold Albany scoreless the final 4:46 of the first half, closing the half with a 10-2 run.

“I was a little disappointed with our defense in the first half,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “I didn't think we defended like we normally did.”

In the second half, Albany came at Florida with one last push, an 11-5 run. Hooley made a 3-pointer to cut Albany's lead to 39-38 with 15:17 left, then was fouled by Wilbekin on a drive to the basket. Hooley made the first of his two free-throw attempts to tie the score at 39, but missed his second.

That's when Young answered on the other end of the floor, muscling over Albany center John Puk for a dunk as he was fouled. The three-point play put Florida up 42-39 and sparked a 9-0 Florida run.

“I didn't think I was going to go up and dunk it,” Young said. “But I just mid-flight went up and threw it down and finished the play.

Florida outscored Albany 38-12 in the paint, overcoming a 3-of-12 shooting day from 3-point range. Asked about UF's size, Brown said: “You see the size of Patric Young? If he couldn't make it in the NBA, he's going to have a shot in the NFL. If he doesn't go to the NFL, he'll be in the WWE. If he doesn't go to the WWE, maybe UFC.”

But Young also missed a dunk earlier in the second half and was called for a flagrant foul when an inadvertent elbow grazed Albany forward Sam Rowley. It was that kind of day for the Gators. Every time Florida tried to pull away, the Gators would make another mistake. Florida fans couldn't breathe easy until a Wilbekin 3-pointer with 2:10 left extended UF's lead 64-52 with 2:10 remaining.

“We just couldn't get into a flow on offense,” Wilbekin said.

Donovan said the same could be said for UF's defensive effort. He felt the Gators practiced well enough heading into the Albany game to expect a better showing. It just didn't materialize.

“We seemed to be in a good place, pretty focused and sometimes you don't get the performance you want,” Donovan said. “So we'll have to play a lot better.”

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