ST. LOUIS, MO — This time of the year, when a loss means the season ends, you don’t worry about style or double-digit winning margins. Win it by one or twenty-one, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting the W so you can survive to play again. Friday night, Florida got the W, survived and moved on to the Elite Eight. That’s all that mattered.
Florida’s 65-57 Sweet 16 win over the Butler Bulldogs in the Midwest Regional was every bit about toughing it out down the stretch as it was brilliant strategy, and you have to hand it to Billy Donovan on that end. A Donovan adjustment at the under-eight TV timeout in the first half had plenty to do with Florida (32-5) moving on but there at the end, in those final three minutes of the game when it could have gone either way, poise, not adjustments made the difference. The Gators played with the poise that you expect of a championship team and they moved on.
“I think the whole thing this time of the year is to move forward and figure out where you can get better,” said Coach Billy Donovan after the Gators advanced to face Oregon, a 76-72 winner over UNLV. “I don’t think anybody out there is going to play flawless and perfect basketball, and at times it’s going to look ugly. It just is.”
From a stand point of style, it was an ugly game, but Florida’s poise down the stretch when the game was on the line turned the Gators into survivors and got them into the next round of the tournament. Florida got a gut-check show of poise when it was time for the team that wanted to win the most to show up.
In the final three minutes, the Gators got a three-point play the old fashioned way by Al Horford, a clutch eight-footer from the left baseline by Corey Brewer, blocked shots from Horford and Joakim Noah and nothing but net at the foul line. When the Gators had to be clutch at the line, they drained everything. The Gators outscored Butler 11-3 down the stretch thanks to 7-7 shooting at the foul line.
That’s what survivors do in the NCAA Tournament.
“Basically, when you’re at the line late in the game you know you gotta make your free throws because you can lose,” said Brewer, whose 4-4 from the foul line contributed to Florida’s 13-point scoring margin on free throws. Florida was 23-28 from the line while Butler was 10-13 with all three of the Bulldogs’ misses coming in those final three minutes when the game was in doubt.
Horford’s three-point play gave the Gators a 57-54 lead with 2:34 left in the game. Horford took a pass in the low blocks swung to his left and powered into Butler’s 6-7 Brandon Crone for a two-foot bank shot. Crone went flying but the whistle went Florida’s way. Horford hit the free throw, one of eight that he buried on this night when he had to come up big.
That play emphasized the difference in the two teams. Down the stretch, the Gators played like a team that’s been there, done that and not just once but plenty of times. When the Gators went to the foul line, they knocked the shots down. In the last minute of the game, they were 6-6. When Butler went to the foul line, its usually reliable shooters couldn’t hit.
Mike Green, a 75 percent foul shooter, missed two in a row at the 2:13 mark and A.J. Graves, hitting a phenomenal 95.3 percent from the line, went 1-2 with 1:29 left in the game.
“Games like this come down to a few plays and if you make them, you win,” said Horford, who finished the night with 16 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots. “We were confident that we could make the plays when we had to.”
For the longest time in the first half, Florida looked like a team that wasn’t going to have a chance to make game-winning plays.
The last thing the Gators needed was a slow start against a confident team with a chip on its shoulder — and it’s not like we’ve seen a lot of slow starts this season — but here we were nine minutes into the game and Butler was raining threes like it was shooting practice back at Hinkle Field House. Brandon Crone knocked down two in a row with a funky flat shot that looked like it would barely make it to the rim and Pete Campbell, hitting 51 percent from three-point land coming into the game, showed why you can’t leave him alone. When he hit his third straight three-ball with 8:39 left in the half, the Bulldogs had that giant-killer look about them and a nine-point (25-16) lead.
That’s when Florida’s defense did a total team makeover. The Gators went from passive to suffocating, from one that had holes in it to one so tight that you’d think there was a vacuum seal on the Butler offense. Butler didn’t score from the field the rest of the half, its only points four free throws and the last of those came with 5:03 left in the half.
Florida got stops because of a change in strategy that Coach Billy Donovan orchestrated during the under eight minute time out. Butler was wearing out the Florida defense with its screens on the perimeter. Whenever Florida tried to help out on the screens, Butler found open shooters so Donovan made the adjustment that probably saved the game for the Gators.
“We played some zone,” Donovan said in the locker room after the game. “We tried to switch in the middle of the possession. We started playing zone half the possession. They were trying to run us around and wear us out and then all of a sudden try to score late in the clock. So we said let’s play zone 15 seconds and then switch and go man.”
If the Gators hadn’t adjusted, there is every good chance Butler would have shot them out of the Edward Jones Dome but once Florida changed strategy, the perimeter got locked down. With Butler’s three-point weapons neutralized the rest of the half, Florida was able to claw its way back into the game.
The change in strategy was most frustrating for Graves, Butler’s leading scorer (17.8 points per game). More often than not, he found himself face to face with Noah (6-11), Horford (6-10) or Brewer (6-9) on the perimeter. When he tried to shoot over them, he missed badly. When he tried to drive on them, Florida had another big guy in the lane. The 6-1 Graves went 0-6 from the field in the first half and 0-3 from the three-point line. He finished the game with 11 points but he was 4-13 overall from the field and just 1-6 from the three-point line.
“It’s a pretty good luxury when you have Brewer, Noah, Horford that are 6-9, 6-11, 6-10 across the front line that you sit there and say you’re going to guard a guy that’s 6-0 tonight,” said Donovan. “That’s a pretty nice luxury.
Florida’s big guys can play on the perimeter because they practice it every day.
“We practice guarding Taurean, Lee (Humphrey) and Walter (Hodge) on the perimeter every day so it wasn’t so tough for us,” said Chris Richard, who came off the bench to score two points, grab two rebounds and block one shot. “We’re used to playing against quick guards outside, so it’s not a big deal when we go out there. The biggest thing we had to do was start talking and once we did that, we shut them down.”
Added Noah, “I don’t think it was about our bigs playing their guys on the perimeter. It was about communication and about all five guys being on the same page. When we were, that’s when we got stops. It was all about communication. We were switching on all pick and rolls, all screens.”
Florida didn’t exactly burn it up on the offensive end to get back in it, but the game plan was to pound it, pound it, pound it on the inside and it took its toll on the Bulldogs, whose only answer to Florida’s size was to foul. Six straight Florida free throws got the Gators back in it. Noah’s two foul shots with 4:48 left not only cut the Butler lead to five (29-24) but started Florida on an 11-0 run close out the half.
The Gators got the lead for the first time since the score was 6-4 when Brewer and Taurean Green found the range on three-balls on back-to-back possessions to make it 30-29 with 2:07 left. Green would close out the half by nailing a three at the buzzer to send the Gators into the dressing room with a 35-29 lead.
What was frustrating for Donovan was Florida’s first two minutes of the second half when the Gators had a chance to expand the lead to 10-12 points. The Gators had open looks but they failed to score. When Butler finally broke the ice with 17:51 left in the game, the Bulldogs got a surge of confidence that kept them close the rest of the way.
“Lee’s first shot [of the second half] didn’t even hit the rim and we had a couple of turnovers, then we let them score 5-6 straight points and we had some possessions that we didn’t capitalize,” said Donovan.
That Florida couldn’t capitalize and Butler did to keep the game a toss-up until the final three minutes came as no surprise to anyone on the Florida team.
“There’s a reason they won 29 games,” said Taurean Green, who finished the night with 17 points and 5-8 shooting from the three-point line. “They’re a good team. They’re one of the best teams we’ve played.”
But on this night, good wasn’t quite good enough for Butler. In the end, it was Florida knowing exactly what to do and who to go to down the stretch. When the game was on the line, Butler flinched. When the game was on the line for Florida, the Gators played with poise.
“The last time we panicked was when we were freshmen,” said Green.
That’s also the last time the Gators lost an NCAA Tournament game. They’ve won nine NCAA Tournament games in a row and they’ll go for 10 on Sunday when they face Oregon.
“We’re just happy we’re in the Elite Eight,” said Noah, whose resume’ read 13 points and nine rebounds for the evening. “We’ll enjoy it tonight and tomorrow we’ll start getting ready for Sunday.”