Gators win, but who's keeping score?
Published: Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 8:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 10:59 p.m.
ORLANDO — His tie discarded, Billy Donovan was walking through the halls of the Amway Center on his way to the podium when he was offered a pat on the back for another NCAA win.
“Thanks,” he said, “I'll take it.”
Yep, you always take wins this time of the season. Ugly, pretty, last second, never in doubt. All that matters is advancing in the dance. Losers are headed home, winners are trying to cram a ton of prep work into a small window.
How Florida won on Thursday is not as important as the fact that the Gators did win. That's all that matters now, even when the locker room felt like a losing team trying to explain what went wrong. As Donovan noted, his 2000 team was sparked by reality in its first game. Sometimes it's best to face the finality, look in its eyes and escape to another day.
Florida's special season bought 48 hours and avoided history against Albany. The game was not without its moments where Twitter caught fire with the notion that a 16 could finally beat a 1 before Florida made just enough plays to win.
What do you take away from it?
Whatever you want.
You can take the approach that Florida looked mentally drained from the last two months, that it treated the danger of their season ending as if it were a bluff.
“It felt like we were playing not to lose,” Michael Frazier II said.
Or you can take the approach that the Gators played one of their worst halves of defense this year, never got their 3-point offense going and still advanced, and that Donovan has their attention now.
“Hopefully they'll be able to come back and do things a little better,” Donovan said. “This was not one of our better moments.”
You can take away from this win a feeling that the Gators saw Albany as a bunch of players with “Play-in Game” stamped in red letters on their foreheads.
“It was kind of like we were taking things for granted,” Casey Prather said.
Or you can remember that this team plays its best basketball against its best opponents and so often this season let teams stay around in games that should have been over.
You can feel that a performance like Thursday's will end the season on Saturday against Pitt. And you'd be right.
“This isn't going to be enough to keep our season going,” said Patric Young, who had his first double-double of the season.
Said Donovan: “Is it good enough to play against a team like Pittsburgh? Probably not.”
Or you can throw this out at breakfast today — ask somebody to put down the fork and name one score from last year's NCAA Tournament. Scores don't matter this time of the year. Wins elate. Losses deflate.
Scores, we can look up down the road.
If you want to believe Florida was exposed by Albany's junk defense, go right ahead. That's your prerogative. If you want to believe that Florida survived a shaky performance and the Gators will come out against Pitt like a different team, well, you may be right.
All we know for sure is that Donovan's team won its 27th straight game and is 33-2 for the year. Did the Gators make you nervous when it was 39-39 almost six minutes into the second half? Did you wonder if Albany's John Puk was ever going to miss a shot? Sure.
But every game is its own game and Thursday's has nothing to do with Saturday. Florida has shown all season it can play better than what it showed against Albany. Not that it guarantees anything. This is the tournament.
If we learned anything on Thursday, it was that having more Gator fans in the crowd than any other team wasn't that much of an advantage (the fans who showed up on Sunday in Atlanta were twice as loud) and that the burden of what they have accomplished might finally be weighing on them.
“Could it be expectations? Could it be an emotionally draining long year?” asked Donovan. “Could it be, hey, Albany is a play-in game? I don't know what it necessarily could be.
“Sometimes, you don't get the performance that you want. So we'll have to play a lot better.”
And that is the one truism you can take from Florida's first game of this year's tournament — what was good enough to win Thursday won't be good enough again.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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