As expected, it wasn’t easy.
Florida withstood a run by UCLA in the second half with poise and tough defense as they beat the Bruins 79-68 to advance to the Elite Eight for the fourth consecutive year.
“Done it before,” Will Yeguete said in the post-game locker room. “Go back to the hotel, get some treatment, get some rest, look at the scouting and go again. It’s fun.”
Taking a six-point lead to halftime, the Gators came out in the second half and extended that out to 11 as freshman Chris Walker made some unexpected contributions off the bench.
“I just try to be ready when coach calls my name,” Walker said with a big smile sitting in front of his locker. “I go in and play good defense, give some energy to my teammates, block some shots and then see what I can do on offense.”
Walker only played six minutes in the game but his 7 points were a necessary bonus with Patric Young and Casey Prather on the bench with foul trouble.
“We know when we go to the bench that the other five guys on the floor are going to play great defense,” Young explained to a media throng gathered around his locker. “I was a little frustrated so my role was more cheerleader than anything else. I did contribute a little there in the second half but this is really a team win.”
Prather agreed that the team gets the credit, not unexpectedly. “All the guys contribute. It’s been that way all year. Dodo, Kasey, Chris gave us big minutes. We’re just thankful that we get to play again on Saturday.”
UCLA’s early zone defense allowed the perimeter of the Gators offense open shots, and for the first time in this tournament, Michael Frazier II made them pay. Frazier finished with 19 points, hitting 5-three pointers to lead the Gators in scoring. Apparently he didn’t like the rims at the Amway Arena in Florida’s first two games but he found the ones at the FedEx Forum to his liking. When he scores like that, it opens up the floor for a lot of other offensive options for the Gators; and they have plenty.
“He’s (Frazier) been working really hard the last few days, working on his shot. He’s a shooter, so he’s got to get that confidence going,” Yeguette explained. “When he was open, he made it.”
For the fourth consecutive year, Florida is back in the Elite Eight, this time against Dayton (6:09 Saturday TBS from Memphis). The Flyers are in the Regional finals for the first time since 1984. The Gators on the other hand, are familiar with this position. It’s the one they’ve gone home from the last three years.
“It’s crazy that it’s here already, ” Young said about going back all four years of his tenure in Gainesville. “You never want to take it for granted but we’ve been blessed and we’re here again. Hopefully we can go farther this time.”
Against the Bruins the Gators leaned on some of the close victories they grabbed during the regular season. In fact, it felt like a late season conference game in the second half. They didn’t panic; they leaned on their seniors and advanced.
“The seniors really lead by example,” Dorian Finney-Smith said at his locker still sporting a Band-Aid over his right eye. “When they don’t panic, we don’t panic. It got to be a one point lead and we just settled down, played good defense and Scottie hit a couple of shots.
This team is accustomed to the quick turnaround and Donovan can look back over the last 8 years and see what worked and what hasn’t once the team got to this point.
Obviously, motivation won’t be a factor.
“I’ve never been to the Final Four,” Young said earnestly. “We’ve got a chance to be the best team in Florida history. We’ve got an opportunity to win a National Championship. What more motivation do you need to go out and play your best?”