This win was about survive and advance

There is no category for style points, which is a good thing for the #1-ranked Florida Gators. If you judge the Gators by their 67-55 win over Albany in Thursday’s NCAA Tournament South Regional at the Amway Arena in Orlando, then there is no way this is the #1-ranked team in the nation much less the top seed in the entire tournament.

Thursday’s win was all about survive and advance. Florida (33-2) survived its first game and advanced to Saturday’s third round against Pittsburgh of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which was very impressive in taking out Colorado of the Pac-12, 77-48. Pitt certainly didn’t play like a #9 seed against Colorado, just as the Gators certainly didn’t play like a #1 against Albany, but both teams got what they wanted, which was a win and a ticket to the next round.

Albany needed an improbable three-day run in its conference tournament and a win in the play-in game in Dayton Tuesday night just to get to Orlando in the first place. Realistically speaking, the Great Danes shouldn’t have been able to stay within 25 points of the Gators (33-2), who won their 27th consecutive game. The Great Danes would have struggled to win one or two games against even the catfish who feed on the bottom of the Southeastern Conference, yet Florida allowed them a measure of respectability.

By playing the first 30 minutes of the game as if they had left the defensive game plan back at the team hotel, the Gators let Albany dream the impossible dream of becoming the first #16 seed in NCAA Tournament history to knock off a #1 seed. When the score was tied at 39-39 with 14:32 left in the game, Albany’s dream was at its zenith while the knot grew tight in the stomach of the Florida fans who sold out the arena.

Florida freshman Kasey Hill was both the bucket of cold water that splashed on the faces of the precocious Great Danes and the jumper cables that recharged the dead batteries that were the Gators. Playing perhaps the best game of his still young career, Hill went on his best personal tear of the season. Starting with a steal and a layup that gave the Gators a 44-39 lead with 13:28 to go, Hill scored another six points, grabbed a rebound and blocked a shot as the Gators extended their lead to 59-47 over a 10-minute stretch to end all hope for the Great Danes.

“I thought Kasey coming off the bench there in the second half gave us really great minutes, played very well, was a real good spark for us,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

Hill was the offensive spark the Gators needed on a day when Albany kept changing its defenses to take away the 3-point line. Florida, which lived on 3-balls in the SEC Tournament, was only 3-12 in this game. Michael Frazier, who torched the SEC for three days in Atlanta, was neutralized. He hit only one 3-pointer the entire game with 10:06 to go that gave the Gators their first 10-point lead of the game at 51-41.

When Frazier hit the 3-ball, it was almost a sign that the Gators were not going to succumb to the upset bug, but there was no shaking the feeling that Florida just didn’t have it going. And while the offense couldn’t get the 3-pointers to drop, that really wasn’t the problem.

“Offensively we were fine,” Donovan said. “I thought where it showed up for us, we were not as connected as a group defensively as we’ve been up to this point in time, and we’ve been a great defensive team.  Today we were not a great defensive team.”

That is an understatement.

Albany hit 10 of its first 15 shots in a first half that Florida was only able to take charge of in the last four minutes. The Gators led 34-28 at the intermission and then let the Great Danes outscore them 11-5 in the first six minutes of the second half to tie the game at 39-39.

The Great Danes came back down to earth – they finished the game 20-51 (39.2%) and just 30.8% (4-13) from the 3-point line – but it wasn’t the intense effort the Gators showed in Atlanta when they held both Missouri and Tennessee to 49 points and Kentucky to 60 in the SEC Tournament championship game. Still, it was enough and at this point of the season it’s not about style and it isn’t about plundering and pillaging your way though the tournament.

However nice blowout wins may be, they count the same as a lethargic efforts like the one the Gators delivered Thursday. The only thing that matters is that the Gators survived against Albany and advanced to the next round against Pitt. Style points don’t matter and quite frankly, this is a team that has had more than its share of games that were won without a whole lot of style.

“Our margin for error as a team is not great,” Donovan said.  “So when you see what you see today, we were able to overcome it and win the game, but we were not the same defensive team I think that we’ve been in the past.  We really weren’t.  And could that be expectations?  Could it be emotionally drained, long year?  Could it be, hey, Albany is in a play‑in game?  I don’t know what it necessarily could be.

“We worked really, really hard.  They’ve practiced well.  They’ve practiced well on Tuesday.  I thought we practiced well yesterday.  We seemed to be in a good place, pretty focused, and sometimes you don’t get the performance that you want. So we’ll have to play a lot better.”

There really isn’t much margin for error for this Florida team, but that’s been the case the entire season. The Gators have made a living out of grinding out wins. The Gators aren’t going to win any beauty contests but over the next three weeks a lot of pretty teams will see their seasons come to an end.

Whether you win by one or by 21, it’s all the same. You win. You advance. You lose. You go home.

Albany went home Thursday. The Gators survived and advanced.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.