Florida forward Casey Prather dunks the ball during the second-round game against Albany on Thursday, March 20, 2014, in Orlando, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Florida coach Billy Donovan gathered his team in a solemn locker room and delivered the harsh truth: "This isn’t going to be enough to keep our season going."
The players shook their heads in agreement — and vowed to respond.
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The top-seeded Gators sleepwalked early and still looked vulnerable late. Luckily for Florida, Donovan’s bench came up big and bailed out the team in a tight game against what was supposed to be an overmatched opponent.
Sixth man Dorian Finney-Smith scored 16 points, most of them on dunks, and Florida used a second-half surge to beat No. 16 seed Albany 67-55 in the NCAA tournament Thursday.
"We know that there’s more inside of us, more that we need to give," said center Patric Young, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. "Hopefully we can come in the next game, Saturday, with a better mindset, better focus."
Kasey Hill added 10 points off the bench for Florida (33-2), which extended its school-record winning streak to 27 games and advanced to face ninth-seeded Pittsburgh in the South Region on Saturday.
But the Gators know they’ll have to play better to advance to the Sweet 16.
"It was good enough to win, but is it good enough to play against a team like Pittsburgh? Probably not," Donovan said. "But I’m proud of our guys because they found a way to win when they didn’t play their best. And you know what? They’ve always been really good at being able to learn valuable lessons in a lot of ways. So hopefully they’ll be able to come back and correct that and do a little bit better."
Florida’s win made No. 1 seeds 117-0 against 16 seeds since the NCAA tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
So many of those were over by halftime. This one, though, was far from a lopsided affair.
The first half couldn’t have gone much better for Albany, which was back on the court less than 48 hours after the program’s first NCAA tournament win. The Great Danes (19-15), who beat Mount St. Mary’s in the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, made 10 of their first 15 shots and hung with Florida.
Albany did an impressive job breaking Florida’s press. And coach Will Brown had a clear game plan on defense: Don’t let Michael Frazier II get any clean looks from 3-point range, beg Prather to take jumpers, sag in the post on center Young and mix up defenses from possession to possession. Box and one. Triangle and two. Zone. Man. Albany used it all.
It worked — nearly to perfection.
"I knew they were going to junk the game up," Donovan said.
Frazier was scoreless in the first half, Prather turned into a jump shooter and Young was missing early on.
But Donovan adjusted, like he’s done so many other times this season, and got Florida rolling. Wilbekin started driving and dishing, creating easy baskets for Young and Finney-Smith at the rim. Finney-Smith had six consecutive points that seemed to get the Southeastern Conference champs going, and Prather followed with a three-point play that riled up the pro-Florida crowd.
Florida’s final 10 baskets of the first half were in the paint.
Still, Donovan was livid at halftime and ripped his players for a lack of defense.
"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," Donovan said. "Today we were not a great defensive team."
Florida finally responded with a 9-0 run early in the second half — spearheaded by defense, of course — that turned out to be the difference. Young started it with a three-point play. Hill followed with a driving layup and then added two free throws after a turnover. Will Yeguete got another steal, and Finney-Smith’s emphatic dunk capped the spurt.
It was exactly what Florida needed, and it probably kept Albany from pulling off the most elusive upset in college hoops.
"Very few people gave us a chance," said Brown, whose 11-year-old son even asked if the team was going to get killed. "If we didn’t come here to win, we should have got on that plane in Dayton and went right back to Albany. A 16 is going to beat a 1 at some point, and we wanted to be that team."
DJ Evans led Albany with 21 points and seven rebounds. He set the tone for the Great Danes early, but couldn’t do enough to keep them close late.
Finney-Smith was 6-of-10 shooting and tough to handle in the post. Hill, who wasn’t sure he would be able to play because of turf toe, was dynamic on the open floor.
Casey Prather (16 points) and Scottie Wilbekin (10) also reached double figures for Florida, which left Donovan and bracket managers everywhere shaking their heads. Will the Gators respond?
"I feel like we can," Finney-Smith said. "We’ve been doing it all year. It was just a tough game. We didn’t come out with a lot of energy like we prepared to, but we’ve just got to move on to the next game."