Following his team’s victory, Miami Coach Jim Larranaga shuffled, jabbed and juked— comparing his team to Muhammad Ali.
But truth be told, it was another Florida team — The Gators— that best impersonated “The Greatest”.
Florida dominated the early rounds of its contest with Minnesota, almost scoring a fast knockout and pummeling its opponent into near submission. A barrage
of three-point bombs sent the Gophers staggering into the locker room dazed, woozy and on the battered end of a 21-point halftime deficit.
Float like a butterfly. Chomp like a Gator.
Ahh– but like the sweet-science, basketball too can turn on a single swing.
And swing is exactly what the Gophers did. So too did the momentum.
Early in the second stanza, the Gators were clocked with a quick combination.
Lay-up. 3-pointer. Jumper. Whap-whap-whap.
Florida was staggered. And in the corner, its coach saw it coming.
“There was no way Minnesota was going to come out there in the second half and let the game go from 21 to 31. They’re gonna fight,” Donovan said in his post-
game press conference.
3-pointer. 3-pointer. Dunk. Thud-thud-thud.
The bruising Big 10 opponent landed heavy shots, decimating the Gators margin and pounding at the Florida vulnerable psyche.
Florida had seen this scenario before — victims of furious rallies and late-game knockouts to Kentucky, Ole Miss and Arizona.
“Okay, here we go again— a 7 or 8 point lead. You know, we need to step up as a team right now and take this on,” Donovan said.
Outside the ropes— on the bench— Senior Eric Murphy sat helplessly, saddled by foul trouble.
“It was tough because, you know, I almost felt like trapped a little bit in the second half. I felt like I was watching the whole game happening,” he said.
But as his teammates trudged back to the bench, dizzied from a Minnesota flurry, the senior forward rose and summoned his inner Angelo Dundee. Though he
did not shout “you’re blowing it” as the legendary trainer once had, Murphy physically pulled his team together a delivered a strong message.
He was not ready for this season, nor his career, to end. Not like this.
“I just grabbed the guys and said, ‘We just got to get the job done right. We have to come together’,” Murphy said.
And so— with the now partisan crowd, momentum and arguably even the officiating going against them, the Gators teammates came together. They collectively leaned back against the ropes, absorbed the onslaught, put their hands up and did what they had all year. They defended.
Florida defended its narrowed lead.
Their pride. Their season. And most importantly, it defended the hoop.
For nearly 7 minutes, Florida held Minnesota without a field goal, rope-a-doping the Gophers into bad shots, poor possessions and turnovers. And with the challenger soon wearied from its earlier onslaught, the Gators punched back.
“We just felt like our backs were against the wall and we had no option really than to just push through and keep playing,” Guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
The biggest Gators stepped off the ropes and to the free throw line. Patric Young and Will Yeguete found the mark 4 straight times in the winning moments.
Swish-Swish-Swish-Swish. Now it was Minnesota staggering once more.
“I give our guys a lot credit in terms of battling and fighting off that run. And making some plays— some key plays in key situations,” Donovan later said.
Often, those plays came at the hands of Scottie Wilbekin.
3-pointer. Assist. Jumper. Whap-whap-whap. The Gophers were out on their feet.
“Scottie, I think stepped up,” Donovan said.
And with Minnesota set-up for the finishing blow, senior Mike Rosario delivered a 3-point haymaker that landed flush.
“I felt that, you know, I let my team down by not doing that in the first game. So I was beating myself up about that and I was happy to come out today and get the job done,” Rosario said.
Rosario did more than get the job done, punching in a 25 points. And with the ‘beating-up’ reserved for its opposition, he and his teammates reveled another Sweet 16 invitation.
In the locker room Donovan delivered his post-fight message.
“Obviously we didn’t come out like we needed to, for whatever reason— had some bad plays. But you guys finally stepped up and answered the bell when it got crunch time by getting stops. You played with a rage,” he said.
With its opponent dispatched, that rage gave way to jubilation.
Players and coaches high-fived, cheered, hugged and danced.
Someone should have shuffled.