Gators overcome Northwestern St., upset bug

AUSTIN, Texas — They were aware of what happened late Thursday night when Harvard, the No. 14 seed in the West Region, knocked off No. 3-seed New Mexico. By the time the Gators took the court Friday night, they were aware that No. 13-seed LaSalle upset No. 4-seed Kansas State, a team Florida lost to in the regular season, earlier in the day.

And as the Gators opened a huge lead in the second half of their 79-47 win over Northwestern State, a few of them noticed heavy underdog Florida Gulf Coast, a No. 15 seed, leading No. 2-seed Georgetown when the game was put on the large video board here above the Erwin Center court.

The Gators knew March Madness had truly arrived. Unlike some others, they didn’t stumble in their first dance of the NCAA tournament.

The streaking Demons managed to keep the game interesting in the first half, trailing by only eight points (40-32) at the break. But a 16-0 run in the second half and a stifling defense allowed the Gators to pull away for a 32-point win.

The second-half surge also allowed Gators coach Billy Donovan a chance to empty the bench in the final minutes instead of frantically calling timeouts trying to overcome a huge upset.

“I’m just glad we took care of business and we did it in a great way as a team, playing great defense,” said junior center Patric Young, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. “I’m just happy we’re in here smiling and not crying.”

The Gators and their fans have shed tears over the years as an upset victim early in the tournament, most notably a loss to Manhattan in the first round nine years ago.

While some speculated that Northwestern State and its high-potent offense — the Demons entered leading the nation in scoring — might wear down the Gators and create the ingredients for an upset, nothing close to that materialized.

Florida held the Demons to 15 points in the second half and 34 points below their season average. That’s defense with a capital D.

“If you don’t take care of business now you are going home,” junior guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We’ve got to come out in every game with that mentality.”

Florida advanced to face Minnesota on Sunday with a third consecutive berth in the Sweet 16 on the line for the Gators.

The Gators (27-7) will once again be considered the favorite. But don’t tell them that.

“The seeding doesn’t matter,” said junior Will Yeguete. “You just have to come out and play. When the ball goes up, everybody has a chance. It wasn’t an easy game for us. We can get better. We have to make sure we go hard from the get-go and go hard for 40 minutes.”

Donovan improved to 29-10 in the NCAA tournament with Friday’s win. His message heading into Sunday’s game will be the same as it was going into the matchup with Northwestern State.

Seeding really does not matter.

You see it every year in the tournament, and in the first two rounds this year Georgetown, New Mexico and Kansas State — all No. 4 seeds or better — have vanished.

“I talk to them a lot about it,” Donovan said. “Listen, it’s amazing to me. Every year there are upsets, as people like to put it. I don’t know why anybody’s surprised any more. Everybody that’s in this NCAA tournament is a really, really good team. And if you don’t play well, you are probably going to have a hard time winning the game.”