Florida hoping recent close wins can be put to use

Florida hoping recent close wins can be put to use

March 20th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Florida head coach Billy Donovan answers questions at a news conference for the NCAA college basketball tournament in Orlando, Fla., Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

More often than not, the NCAA men's basketball tournament champion needs at least one close victory along the way.

Florida does not lack for experience in that category.

Billy Donovan's Gators are the tournament's top overall seed and will open play shortly after 4 this afternoon against 16th-seeded Albany, which outlasted Mount St. Mary's in Tuesday night's First Four game. Florida is not expected to be challenged today, but some last-minute thrillers may be right around the corner.

"We've been in a lot of those games this year," Donovan said earlier this week on a teleconference. "I think that in every game you play, you gain more experience."

The 32-2 Gators won all 21 games this year against Southeastern Conference opposition but were in more tight games as the season transpired. In racing out to a 12-0 league start, Florida had seven double-digit victories and won 11 by six or more points, with the lone exception being an 84-82 overtime win at Arkansas on Jan. 11.

In their last six regular-season games, however, the Gators had to survive Auburn (71-66), Ole Miss (75-71) and Vanderbilt (57-54). Florida trailed the Tigers 65-63 with 45 seconds remaining and outlasted the Commodores, who missed a 3-pointer as time ran out.

Last week's SEC tournament brought more close calls, as Florida broke free from a 49-49 deadlock with 2:30 left to top Tennessee 56-49 in Saturday's semifinals before edging Kentucky 61-60 in Sunday's championship. The Wildcats had the final possession, but freshman James Young slipped as he was driving to the basket.

"Kentucky in the second half played very well, and the game could have gone either way," Donovan said, "but I think we can learn from what happened in that game. It was one of those things that coming out of our last regular-season game, we had a whole week off, and I think it showed in the first half against Missouri. As the tournament went on, we got into a better groove and rhythm, and there is no question that against Kentucky, fatigue was definitely a factor.

"It's the only time this year that Kentucky and ourselves had to play three games in a row, and that was certainly physically challenging for both teams."

Florida defeated Kentucky despite making just seven of 17 free-throw attempts, and it was the second straight weekend in which the Gators lost a sizable lead. On the last day of the regular season, the Gators whipped visiting Wildcats 84-65, but Kentucky opened the second half on a 19-4 run to pull within 53-47.

The Gators comfortably led the SEC title game 54-40 before Kentucky reeled off 13 straight.

"We know the runs are coming," senior center Patric Young said. "We just have to stay together and lock in and focus on defense. That's the No. 1 key for us."

Florida's 2006 NCAA title team had a close Sweet 16 victory over Georgetown (57-53) but won its other five games by 13 or more points. When the Gators repeated in 2007, their closest call was a 74-67 escape of Purdue in the second round.

The Gators were the top overall seed in '07, which has been the place to be. Kentucky, the 2012 NCAA champ, and Louisville, last year's winner, were top overall seeds.

"I think there is a whole body of work that goes into this, starting in November," Donovan said. "The committee is looking at everything -- the strength of your schedule, the strength of your league, your wins against certain teams and how you've played the last 10 or 12 games.

"There is a lot that goes into it, but once the pairings come out, you've just got to go out there and play. We're just excited with the opportunity to play."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.