As the clock crept toward midnight here in Texas; Florida put the finishing touches on a 62-50 victory over NCAA tournament Cinderella Florida Gulf Coast. With the win, the Gators earned a school-record third straight trip to the Elite Eight, as they will take on the Michigan Wolverines at 2:20pm Sunday afternoon here in Arlington. The Gators won with a strong team defensive effort that included some big plays for some unlikely players.
The Gators struggled mightily, to say the least, for the first ten minutes of the game. They only manufactured seven points in the first nine minutes, which may have been somewhat attributed to the difficulties of shooting perception in such a large arena as Cowboys Stadium. Early on it looked as if Cinderella would dance the night as way, as FGCU jumped out to an early 17-6 lead and Florida struggled to have anything fall in.
But the Gators weren’t ready for their season to end just yet. “I just kept telling those guys, as long as we’re getting good looks, we’ll be fine,” Billy Donovan told his team. “But we need to continue to defend. And really, it was our defense that got us back in.” Casey Prather (11 points, 4 rebounds) came up big for the Gators as he threw down a powerful slam and muscled out a couple more plays to stop FGCU’s momentum midway through the first half. “We wanted to come out and play with energy and help our team win. I think we did a great job of doing it,” Prather said during the press conference following his big performance in the Gator victory.
Freshmen Michael Frazier II, who had struggled as of recent, gave the Gators just the spark they needed, as he knocked down two consecutive three’s to fuel a 16-0 Florida run late in the first half, which turned a 24-14 Florida deficit to a 30-26 lead at halftime. Mike Rosario (15 points, 5 rebounds) also provided the Gators with some much-needed senior leadership, as the team struggled to score for much of the first half. Despite the close score, the Gators managed to get off twice as many shots as the Eagles in the first half, thanks in large part to a strong effort on the boards by the Florida big men.
The Gator’s momentum carried into the early part of the second half, allowing Florida to jump on FGCU by a double-digit lead. Neither team had much success offensively all game long, as the Gators only shot 38.6% from the field all night. As a result, the Gators chomped away, once again, with a great team defense effort. Florida held FGCU to a season low 50 points, thanks to shut down defense from Scottie Wilbekin and Will Yeguete. Wilbekin (13 points) played strong defense all night on FGCU star point guard Brett Cormer; forcing Cormer into nine of his teams 20 turnovers. “I thought we did a great job on Comer, as well, keeping him out of the paint so much,” senior Mike Rosario said after the game. “Because when he gets in there, he’s effective, outside shooters, throwing lobs to the basket. I thought we did a great job.“
Sherwood Brown (14 points, 6 rebounds) appeared to be the only effective player for the FGCU Eagles in the second half, as the Atlantic Sun player of the year found a multitude of ways to score. Will Yeguete and Patric Young got it done in the post for the Gators as Florida managed to record 15 offensive rebounds on the night. Erik Murphy (4 points, 2 turnovers) struggled all night, looking dazed and not completely healthy, as reports said Murphy was still recovering from an illness earlier in the week.
Late in the second half the Eagles continued to battle, but Florida never let their lead slip below eight, as Scottie Wilbekin hit several free throws down the stretch late to seal the Gator win. Florida held their opponent to 50 points or fewer for the 14th time this year and continue to prove what terrific team defense can achieve.
Billy Donovan spoke on his excitement for the team as they head into the Sunday showdown with Michigan in the Elite Eight, “I’ve said this before, it’s so hard just to win a tournament game, never mind advance. I’m happy for Mike Rosario and Boynton and Erik Murphy, and even for the guys like Casey and Pat, and Scottie and Will. But I’m proud of what they’ve been able to do up to this point in time. And they’ve gotten better. I think they’ve been committed to working and committed to trying to get better together, collectively. I think we’ve made some strides and some growth each year. So it’s exciting this time of year to still be playing and still have an opportunity to play again on Sunday.”