AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Florida coach Billy Donovan likes it when his team can run up and down the court.
In their opening game of the NCAA tournament, not even the nation’s highest-scoring team could keep up with the Gators.
Erik Murphy scored 18 points, with a 3-pointer to start and a layup to end a game-breaking 19-1 run in the second half. He led four players scoring in double figures for No. 3 seed Florida in a 79-47 victory over Northwestern State in a South Regional game Friday night.
“The faster the game, I think it was more to our liking,” Donovan said. “That’s just the way we want to play. So I was never concerned about the pace of the game.”
There was no reason for him to worry.
The Demons (23-9) were held to their fewest points this season — 34 below their average. They only scored 15 points after halftime, when they suddenly couldn’t sink a shot.
Of course, Florida (27-7) had a lot to do with that, especially after adjusting to Northwestern State’s unique style of constantly shuffling whole groups of players in and out of the game.
“In the second half, we just, as a team, came together and started helping each other,” guard Kenny Boynton said. “The main thing was coming out with energy.”
DeQuan Hicks had 12 points for the Demons, who upset Iowa as the No. 14 seed in their last NCAA tournament seven years ago. They couldn’t repeat that feat against the Gators.
“Their bulk and strength over the course of the game just really got us in the second half when we got ourselves in a situation where we couldn’t make shots,” Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy said.
Patric Young had 16 points and nine rebounds for Florida. Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin both scored 11.
Murphy and Boynton are seniors who arrived at Florida not long after the Gators had won consecutive national championships in 2006 and 2007. They have been to the NCAA tournament each of their four seasons, but the last two ended with losses an NCAA regional final.
This is their last chance to get a championship of their own and they’re off to a good start — even after Boynton missed most of the first half.
Florida plays Minnesota or UCLA next with the winner of that game Sunday moving on to the round of 16 at Cowboys Stadium, which is about three hours north of the University of Texas campus where they’re at this weekend.
Boynton played only 8 minutes before halftime after two early fouls, but Florida kept going while he sat on the bench.
On his only shot before halftime, Boynton hit a 3-pointer for a 28-21 lead with 9:13 left. That was their biggest lead at that point, but less than a half-minute later Boynton was out for the rest of the half.
Florida added a point to their lead by the break, and then the SEC regular-season champions put the game away with the big run that started when Murphy buried a 3-pointer from the right corner right in front of the Gators bench with 12:26 left.
Six Florida players scored in that 6-minute spurt, including Wilbekin’s impressive alley-oop pass to Casey Prather for an emphatic slam dunk late in the run. When Murphy made a layup with 6:38 left, the Gators had a 68-42 lead.
Northwestern had five turnovers and missed five shots in that span.
“I wouldn’t say it was all to their defense,” Shamir Davis said. “We just missed a lot of shots that we normally make. It isn’t all their defense. We were over-thinking a lot of shots, maybe shooting a lot of shots that were going long.”
Both teams shot well before halftime, Northwestern hitting 54 percent of theirs (13 of 24) and Florida 52 percent (17 of 33).
Northwestern, which got into the NCAA tournament after beating 27-win Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference tournament championship game, made only five of 26 shots after that.
The only time this season the Demons scored fewer points was 55 in a Southland Conference tournament semifinal victory.
Florida’s defensive dominance really shouldn’t have been any surprise. The Gators came in the game third nationally allowing only 53.7 points a game while outscoring teams by 18 a game. The most points they gave up was 80 to Arkansas, and nobody else scored more than 67.
Even with all of the Northwestern State’s usual mass substitutions, nine of the 10 Demons played more minutes than Boynton did in the first half. The other matched Boynton’s 8 minutes.
The Demons made wholesale changes five times in the first 15 minutes. Four times it was all five players switching out.
When there was a 5-for-4 switch with 11:14 left in the first half, Hicks was the only one to stay on the court.
Soon after play resumed, Hicks scored and then followed a Florida miss with a pass to O.J. Evans to get the Demons within 23-21. They never got closer after that.
Wilbekin made a turnaround jumper from near the free-throw line, then Hicks had a bounce pass to Evans, who missed the layup.
Boynton made his 3-pointer from the right wing, and had to wait until after halftime to become Florida’s second career 2,000-point scorer.
“It’s a great accomplishment, but we’re in a struggle in the first half,” Boynton said. “Luckily, we still got the win with it.”