The Florida Gators cruised out to a 51-40 lead midway through the second half, and the Butler Bulldogs simply couldn’t contain senior center Vernon Macklin.
A trip to Houston and the Final Four was only minutes away, and the Gators were in great shape to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
But a mental lapse and a series of loose-ball situations that Butler was able to control allowed the Bulldogs to come back and pull out a thrilling 74-71 overtime win, sending Florida home in disbelief and dismay.
Some players watched the national championship game between Butler and Connecticut from their dorm rooms and apartments, realizing the golden chance at a national title they had blown in an upset-ripe year. Others couldn’t even stomach it.
This year, Florida has already benefited from a little of the luck that could have helped it capture a national title last season. The Gators got to take on No. 15 Norfolk State after the Spartans upset No. 2 Missouri in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Two dominant wins later, senior point guard Erving Walker and the Gators are back to the Sweet 16 with a little extra incentive.
“It’s a big accomplishment for us as a team to get back to the Sweet 16, but it would be an even better thing to get to the Final Four,” Walker said. “We still got work to do.”
Coach Billy Donovan has harped on attention to detail all year long with his team, and Florida finally appears to be getting the message – at just the right time.
The Gators put together their best rebounding performance of the season against a bigger Spartans team on Sunday, winning the rebounding margin by 17. Florida was equally good against Virginia in the second round, winning the rebounding margin by 16.
The +33 margin over the last two games is Florida’s best stretch of the season, and it’s coming at the perfect time.
“I think what happens this time of year is teams are going to scout and they’re going to do a good job and you’re going to know everyone’s tendencies all the way around,” Donovan said. “But it’s those plays, those 50-50 plays, loose balls, a free-throw-line block out, a loose ball in the middle of the floor that you somehow don’t come down with.
“Those plays become very big.”
Florida is set to face a Marquette team touted as extremely physical. The Golden Eagles are coming off a pair of gritty wins against BYU and Murray State, and many of the experts are already picking them to knock off the Gators.
But the Gators have said all year they’re not just a finesse team. They believe they can be physical when they need to.
After all, many of those same experts predicted Norfolk State would have a big advantage on the glass and from a physical standpoint on Sunday.
Florida won by roughing up Norfolk State and asserting its will in the paint.
Freshman guard Brad Beal, the Gators’ leading rebounder this season, takes a little exception to people thinking Florida isn’t a physical team. He’s ready to show Marquette they’re in for a battle.
“I believe we play with a tremendous amount of confidence, and we don’t back down from anybody,” Beal said. “Just because they’re tough, we’re going to come out and play and compete hard and play the way coach wants us to play.”
Donovan has drawn a lot on last year’s heartbreak with a team that now stars a couple of the veterans and a few role players from the squad that narrowly missed out on a Final Four trip.
He has played the Butler tape for them over and over, trying to get it to sink in that the effort doing all the little things makes a huge difference come late March.
“We’ve watched that,” Donovan said. “What we didn’t do is we gave up the last eight minutes of the game something like 13 points off loose-ball situations. In my opinion, that’s where the game was won or lost.”
Preparing for a scrappy Marquette team, Florida will need to stay as focused and locked in as it was in its first two games over the weekend.
The Gators have had lapses all season long that last a few minutes, and opposing teams have been able to capitalize on them to get back in the game or pull ahead. This weekend, there were no such lapses.
That’ll have to continue moving forward if Florida hopes to advance further than last year.
“When a play is going bad, you’ve got to be able to figure out a way to make it good,” Donovan said. “If you take a bad shot, trying to get it back. Or if you don’t rotate correctly on defense, someone else being there. Or a shot going up, reacting. Those things become so much more important.”
Though Florida is coming off a record-breaking stretch – the Gators allowed their fewest points ever (95) and put together the school’s best winning margin (+60) through two NCAA Tournament games – Walker said the team still has room to grow.
If the Gators weren’t firing on all cylinders last week like Walker says, Florida has a chance to win it all if everything starts clicking soon.
“I think right now we’re playing at a high level, but we need to keep it consistent and it’s going to come together one of these next few games,” junior shooting guard Kenny Boynton said.
The Gators know they’re on the cusp of eclipsing last year’s Elite Eight run. But it’ll take another weekend of excellent focus and effort like the one Florida just had.
With last year’s shortcomings fresh in mind, Boynton and the Gators are ready to prove they’ve learned their lesson.
“Last year’s team and this year’s team on a chemistry level they’re similar,” Boynton said. “I think last year’s team we had great leadership in the three seniors we had, but we’re headed to the same situation.
“This year we just have to convert.”