Gators’ bench turns in winning performance against UCLA

Gators guard Kasey Hill (0) lays the ball up for two of his six points against UCLA. He also grabbed six rebounds and recorded a career-high 10 assists.

Nelson Chenault

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — It was Kasey Hill’s passes. It was Chris Walker’s rebounds. It was Dorian Finney-Smith’s shots. And it was Devon Walker’s long arms on defense.

It was Florida’s bench making play after play after play in the Gators’ 79-68 win over UCLA on Thursday night, lifting UF to the Elite Eight for the fourth consecutive season.

"Nobody here wanted to lose," said Gators forward Casey Prather, limited to 19 minutes due to foul trouble. "Our guys did a great job coming in off the bench."

Yes, they did.

Florida’s bench outscored UCLA’s 23-11 and made a huge difference at critical times in the game.

–Hill dished a career-high 10 assists, scored six points and grabbed six rebounds.

–Chris Walker energized the Gators late in the first half with five points, three rebounds and a block. He finished with seven points in six minutes.

–Finney-Smith scored 10 points, grabbed six rebounds and added four assists.

–Devon Walker chipped in with a block in seven minutes, primarily inserted into the game to help defend UCLA’s tall and long lineup.

How’s this for bench production: 23 points, 15 rebounds, 14 assists, three blocks and a steal.

The Gators needed all of it to win their 29th consecutive game and move within a game of the program’s first Final Four berth in seven years. Florida will face Dayton, which beat Stanford, on Saturday in the South Region final.

"I thought it was a team effort at different points," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "Some different guys stepped up and helped us win."

Start with Hill, who found the open man all night. His most important assist came on a pass to Finney-Smith a little past the midway point of the second half.

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A 50-39 Florida lead had been trimmed to 56-55 after UCLA guard Norman Powell’s layup with 10 minutes left. The tension inside FedExForum was thick as Hill drove inside on the ensuing possession.

Hill kicked the ball out to Finney-Smith on the baseline near the Florida bench. Finney-Smith made the shot with 9:41 remaining, sparking a 10-0 Florida run over the next 4:07 that gave the Gators some breathing room.

"I drove and I kicked it back to him and he hit the shot in the corner," Hill said. "That was a big shot by him. It definitely slowed their momentum down some. I always try to get my teammates involved and they were hitting open shots tonight."

Walker did most of his damage during a two-minute stretch late in the first half. Walker took a pass from Prather and hit a shot to give Florida a five-point lead with 3:09 left before halftime. The Bruins scored to cut the lead to three, but Walker was fouled.

He made the first free throw and missed the second. However, he grabbed the rebound and scored the final bucket of the first half, putting Florida ahead 36-30 at halftime.

"He was real active and just impacted the game at the right place, the right moment," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "It’s really good for him, his confidence, because he hasn’t played a lot and we are going to really need him down the stretch."

Walker provided the Gators with some quality minutes with Patric Young in foul trouble. Young picked up two fouls in the first half and he was on the bench when Walker’s spurt helped maintain Florida’s lead.

Walker had played a combined eight minutes without a point in Florida’s first two games in the NCAA Tournament.

"I feel like it’s just an all-around team win, everyone contributed," Walker said. "I just wanted to be aggressive and really crash the offensive glass."

"He was active. He’s getting better and he’s growing," Donovan said. "You know, it’s really a game where I never felt Patric was ever in the flow of the game at all … so Chris coming off the bench gave us good quality minutes. Although they weren’t a lot, I thought they were important minutes."

As Florida’s locker room overflowed with reporters after the game, Hill sat in a corner answering questions. A television crew was set up in front of Finney-Smith, who was seated to Hill’s right.

To Finney-Smith’s right was Walker, who kept playfully bobbing his head in and out of the frame as the TV crew interviewed Finney-Smith.

They all came off the bench Thursday and produced. It was time to have fun.

"Coach Donovan always talks about strength in numbers," said Young, who had only four points and three rebounds because of foul trouble. "That’s one of our team’s philosophies. When guys need a rest or get in foul trouble, we have other guys who can come off the bench and provide for us."

Provide they did.