As magical as they are, Cinderella stories almost always come to an early end. This one was no different.
As Good Friday slipped into early Saturday, the improbable run of Florida Gulf Coast University — the school most people had never heard of prior to the tournament — came to a predictable end. The bigger, stronger and faster Florida Gators beat the 15-seed Eagles 62-50 in a game where the Gators didn’t shoot well, but one where they controlled the tempo and imposed their will.
While no one was really surprised by the outcome, this game provided a few takeaways as the Gators look ahead to Michigan on Sunday.
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1. Relentless defense makes up for a lot of misses but eventually you have to shoot.
Florida shot only 38.6 percent from the floor and only 26.7 percent from the three-point line, numbers that were much worse until the final minutes of the game when the floor opened up and Florida got some easy baskets. It was the kind of brick-against-the-wall night that would have sent Billy Donovan’s squad back to Gainesville had they been playing Michigan, Duke or Louisville. But Florida was able to maintain a six- to 12-point advantage over FGCU throughout most of the second half by pressing at the guard positions and forcing 19 turnovers.
Donovan also understood the need to control the tempo against a team as transition-oriented as FGCU. So, the Gators sprinted back on defense and squashed the fast breaks that had led to so many high-flying alley oop dunks in the Eagles’ first two games. By forcing play into the halfcourt, Florida took the crowd out of it and never allowed the Eagles to gain an emotional edge.
However, it has to concern Donovan that his team had another ho-hum shooting night. No Gator player has emerged as the go-to shooter in this tournament, even though Mike Rosario had 15 points and Scottie Wilbekin had 13. Florida’s big men, Erik Murphy and Patric Young had only four points apiece.
Those numbers were good enough against FGCU. They likely won’t be against Michigan.
2. The Wolverines will have an emotional edge on Sunday.
Florida has had a relatively easy ride thus far. They have beaten a 14-seed, an 11-seed, and a 15-seed, all by convincing margins but none in a manner that made everyone sit up and take notice.
Now they face a Michigan team that is coming off one of the most spectacular wins in recent tournament history, overcoming a 16-point second-half deficit to beat Kansas in overtime. In so doing the Wolverines found their swagger and their offensive confidence.
Granted, Florida is quicker and more aggressive on defense than the Jayhawks, but in a tournament where momentum and emotion have turned so many games, you have to give the upper hand to the upset kids from Ann Arbor.
3. Experience is Florida’s biggest asset.
A team with less experience could have easily panicked when FGCU went up early in the first half, especially with the Gators shooting less than 30 percent. But Donovan and his team remained calm and methodical, sticking to their gameplan and wearing the Eagles down by pressuring the ball early and closing down the inside passing lanes.
Playing on a big stage in a big space is an adjustment. Cowboys Stadium looks like a cavern when you’re accustomed to shooting in a normal arena. The fact that so many of Florida’s players have been in this situation before should allow them to overcome adversity and remain steady throughout the rest of the weekend.
The Elite Eight is where Donovan and the Gators’ runs have stopped the last two seasons. They need to draw on all their past experience in order for that outcome to be different this time around.