NCAA Tournament | South Region: No. 3 seed UF 62, No. 15 seed FGCU 50

University of Florida Gators defeat high-flying FGCU Eagles


No. 3 seed Florida rallied from a double-digit deficit in the first half and beat No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast to advance to its third Elite Eight in as many seasons.

Special to The Miami Herald

Turn out the lights in Dunk City. Florida Gulf Coast’s magical run is over.

The long shot from Fort Myers was thwarted by the No. 3 seed Florida Gators, who played the role of antihero as the nation seemed to unite in its fandom for the Eagles as this year’s tournament darlings. In the end, however, the bad guy won, with UF pulling out a 62-50 win Friday night in front of a crowd of 40,639 inside Cowboys Stadium that was clearly on the side of FGCU.

Florida is the only team in the past three seasons to make consecutive appearances in the Elite Eight and will play No. 4 seed Michigan on Sunday at 2:20 p.m. after the Wolverines defeated the No. 1 seed Kansas Jayhawks 87-85 earlier Friday. While the Eagles presented more of a challenge than some thought possible, the Gators’ road of a No. 14, No. 11 and No. 15 seed is the easiest path to the round of eight in tournament history.

They just hope this year is different.

Florida has been bounced from the tournament in the Elite Eight in consecutive seasons, and players have said anything less than a trip to the Final Four this season would be a disappointment. For more than 10 minutes Friday, it appeared the Gators wouldn’t make it past the Eagles.

FGCU couldn’t have asked for a better start to the game. The first 13 minutes belonged solely to Dunk City, as FGCU played good defense and was able to get out in transition thanks to a slow shooting start for UF. Star point guard Brett Comer assisted on all three of the Eagles first buckets, including what’s quickly becoming a patented alley-oop play to forward Sherwood Brown following an Erik Murphy turnover.

Leading 9-4 at the first media timeout, Bernard Thompson and Chase Fieler nailed consecutive threes to extend the lead to 15-4, causing Florida coach Billy Donovan to burn a timeout. On the strength of a 5-for-6 start from the field, the Eagles extended their lead to as much as 11 in the first half, as the Gators opened the game shooting 4 of 20.

The best shooting team from three remaining in the tournament, Florida averaged 8.4 made three-pointers per game entering Friday’s contest. To start the game against FGCU, UF didn’t make a single one of its first six attempts.

With the No. 15 seed FGCU capturing the attention of America over the last week, UF had to think even the rims inside Cowboy Stadium were rooting for the Eagles after its icy start from the field.

That all changed in the final part of the first half, as three consecutive shots from long range finally dropped for the Gators off the hands of guards Mike Rosario and Michael Frazier II. An 11-point lead quickly evaporated as Florida rattled off a 16-2 run over the final 5:23 to take a 30-26 lead into halftime despite shooting just 34.4 percent (11 of 32) from the field.

UF frustrated FGCU into 12 turnovers in the first half, with Comer accounting for five. He has had issues with turnovers throughout his career, averaging more than four per game as a freshman and more than 3.5 this season. The Gators managed 11 points off those 12 turnovers, also scoring 11 second-chance points as their size inside started to make a big difference toward the end of the half.

In becoming the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16, FGCU used strong starts to the second half to pull away from both No. 2 Georgetown and No. 7 San Diego State. The Eagles had runs of 20-2 against the Hoyas and 17-0 against the Aztecs, but the Gators held the advantage out of the break Friday by outscoring FGCU 11-4 over the first nine minutes of the second half despite going scoreless for more than five of those minutes.

Truly, talent, size and experience won out over the feel-good story on Friday.

Florida used a significant advantage in length and girth to score 36 points in the paint and grab 15 offensive rebounds, which it converted into 16 second-chance points. Overall, the Gators held a 34-28 advantage on the glass and forced the Eagles into 20 turnovers.

UF led by as much as 12 in the second half until FGCU was able to cut the score to 52-45 with 2:46 remaining, but UF shut the door. Florida is still looking for its first win all season in a game decided by fewer than 10 points.

Three Gators scored in double digits Friday, with guard Mike Rosario leading the way with 15 points. Wilbekin added 13 and forward Casey Prather scored 11 off the bench to help Florida hold a 19-12 advantage in bench points.

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