PHOENIX — For the second time in three NCAA tournament games, seventh-seeded Florida struggled to make shots from beyond the three-point arc, the trait for which the Gators are best known.
But once again, it didn’t matter. Florida made more than half its shots from inside the three-point line and used its recently developed inside-out approach to defeat third-seeded Marquette, 68-58, Thursday night in the West Region semifinals.
Despite shooting 25.9 percent (7 for 27) from three-point range, the Gators (26-10) advanced to the Elite Eight for the fourth time in their last five NCAA tournament appearances and will face fourth-seeded Louisville on Saturday.
“Certain teams have great length and great size and can control the ball on the blocks and just play from there,” Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. “We’re not that kind of team. Marquette’s not that kind of team. So you’ve got to find ways to manufacture points in and around the lane, and the best way for us to do that is by driving it down the lane and kicking it out or getting fouled or trying to finish at the rim.”
Gators guard Bradley Beal paced his team with a game-high 21 points, six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals. Marquette Coach Buzz Williams hailed Beal’s versatility, calling the freshman Florida’s “swing vote.”
On a night in which Marquette shot 30.8 percent and was outrebounded, Williams might have been speaking out of envy as much as anything else.
“Anytime you get beat, I think it’s a bailout to just say you didn’t make shots,” Williams said. “You have to make shots, particularly on this stage in a tournament setting, but when you don’t make shots, the easiest thing to say is: ‘Well, we just missed shots that we typically make.’ That wasn’t what happened. They were really good. They were outstanding.”
Marquette (27-8) remained in contention throughout the second half thanks in large part to its defensive grit. The Golden Eagles scrambled for loose balls and collected eight steals. But consistently capitalizing on those opportunities was a different matter.
Marquette guard Todd Mayo stole the ball from Florida point guard Erving Walker near midcourt with 3 1/2 minutes to play and called a timeout as the two players tumbled to the floor near the Golden Eagles’ bench. Williams clapped rapidly and then slapped Mayo’s rear three times as the rest of the team huddled around them.
Mayo trimmed Florida’s lead to six when he scored a three-pointer on Marquette’s ensuing possession.
“After the steal on Erving, we knew that they could be back in the game easily,” said Florida guard Kenny Boynton, who finished with 11 points and five assists. “But then we buckled down and just started taking care of the ball. We were just telling each other that whoever is at the free throw line just has to knock down free throws.”
The Gators made 7 of 8 free throws in the second half, and Marquette never drew closer than to within six points of the lead.
With a recent emphasis placed on having its guards penetrate into the lane rather than always setting for long-range shots – an adjustment made with three games left in the regular season after the team lost versatile sixth man Will Yeguete to a season-ending foot injury – Florida no longer lives and dies by its three-point shooting touch.
The Gators knocked off 10th-seeded Virginia, 71-45, in the round of 64 despite making just 4 of 23 three-point attempts. They used the same blueprint Thursday night.
“We don’t have, per se, an offensively dominant post player,” Donovan said. “But you still have to put pressure on the basket – one, to get to the free throw line, and two, to get yourself some easy baskets. Because of the way we can shoot the ball and space the floor, we’ve got to put the ball on the floor and get into paint and create some help.”
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