ARLINGTON, Texas -- Different year, same result: Heartbreak.
A poor defensive showing coupled with an equally inept display from the field ended Florida’s season one game from reaching the Final Four for the third consecutive season. In 2011 and 2012, the Gators collapsed down the stretch after holding double-digit leads in the second half of Elite Eight games against Butler and Louisville.
This year, however, they weren’t even close.
No. 4 seed Michigan dominated from the opening tip Sunday to throttle No. 3 Florida 79-59 in the South Regional final and advance to the Final Four for the first time since 1994.
The battle for a trip to Atlanta was billed as a bout between the nation’s most efficient offense and one of the top defensive teams in the country, but minutes in it looked like anything but. Florida started 3 of 18 from the field and Michigan was able to capitalize on turnovers and missed shots to explode for an 18-4 lead with just more than five minutes elapsed.
“It’s really difficult when you go against an efficient offense like that, and you start the game 3 for 17 or 3 for 18 or whatever it was, to overcome that,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “Whether or not we were starry-eyed, I can’t put my finger on it because these guys have been in this situation before. It’s not like it’s their first time.”
Coming in with the nation’s second-best rating in defensive efficiency, Florida allowed Michigan to score a season-high 47 points in the first half thanks in large part to the hot shooting of freshman swingman Nik Stauskas.
After shooting just 2 for 16 from beyond the arc in the Wolverines’ previous four games, Stauskas erupted for 19 points on 5-of-5 shooting from long distance in the first 20 minutes.
“We were too consumed with the pick-and-roll and Trey Burke,” said center Patric Young, who picked up two early fouls and had to sit much of the first half. “Guys were helping out with [Burke]. Maybe we didn’t think he was as good a shooter as he is, and he really burned us.”
Florida’s game plan coming into the game was to attack the post, thinking that Michigan did not have the shot-blockers to stop Young and forward Erik Murphy. But neither was effective, combining for just two points on 1-of-8 shooting in the first half.
Playing out of their element, the Gators attempted just 10 threes. In two games inside Cowboys Stadium, Florida made just six shots from beyond the arc. All season Florida’s strength has been its ability to make the long ball, averaging 8.4 threes per game. But the Gators made just one in the first half. The Wolverines went 7 for 11.
“It was a very similar game to Florida Gulf Coast,” senior guard Kenny Boynton said. “You can’t beat good teams shooting it like that. They made us pay.”
After going down 41-17, Florida went on a 13-4 run to pull within 15 just before halftime, but then a series of silly mistakes spelled the end for the Gators. Freshman guard Michael Frazier fouled Stauskas on an attempt from long range as the buzzer sounded.
Stauskas made 2 of 3 to extend the lead to 17 at the break. UF scored the first six points of the second half to close the gap to 11, but Stauskas immediately drained another three. Forward Mitch McGary then got an easy layup out of a timeout. And, on the ensuing inbounds play, 5-11 freshman guard Spike Albrecht stole the pass in the middle of three Gators and converted a wild layup to extend the Michigan advantage to 18.
“It’s four points in like five seconds,” Donovan said. “In a game like this, you can’t do those things. And those things really hurt us.”
Florida never mounted anything resembling a comeback following that sequence, and freshman Scottie Wilbekin said the hardest part about failing again just one game shy of the Final Four is having to send out a senior class he became close to without that accomplishment.
It was the final game as Gators for Boynton, Murphy and guard Mike Rosario, who was named to the All-Region Team. Boynton had 13 points, finishing 58 points shy of the UF all-time scoring record. In the worst game of his career, Murphy finished without a point on 0-of-11 shooting from the field with eight rebounds and three turnovers.
Still, it was a season to remember for Florida. No other team in the past three years made it to the Elite Eight each year. Of course, no team in the history of the modern NCAA Tournament had ever fallen one game shy of the Final Four three consecutive times.
“It’s difficult. It’s difficult,” Boynton said. “I really, really wish, to be honest, that we could have made it to the Final Four. But I think the better team won today. They were the better team. I really wish we could start the game over, but we can’t.”