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A 'Near Death Experience'

Florida Survives After Nearly Squandering 20-Point Lead

By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page D14

NASHVILLE, March 18 -- When Florida avoided yet another early exit from the NCAA tournament by pulling out a tense 67-62 victory over Ohio, there was no jubilation on the its bench and hardly a smile on the faces of its fans.

When the buzzer sounded, junior guard Matt Walsh flipped the game ball into the air and let out a sigh of relief.

"Outside of Gainesville, everyone in the country was probably rooting for Ohio," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan. (Brian Bahr -- Getty Images)

And that is exactly what the fourth-seeded Gators were feeling after squandering a 20-point, second-half lead and overcoming a late charge by the 13th-seeded Bobcats.

The win advanced Florida (24-7) to a second-round meeting with Villanova on Sunday and helped Coach Billy Donovan's team avoid a second consecutive first-round exit. Last season, the fifth-seeded Gators were upset by 12th-seeded Manhattan.

Florida is making its seventh consecutive NCAA tournament appearance but hasn't advanced past the second round since 2000 when it made it to the NCAA championship game before losing to Michigan State.

After the game, Donovan described Friday's close call as "a near death experience."

"What is everybody looking for?" Donovan asked. "Cinderella. Everybody's looking to dress up Cinderella right now. Outside of Gainesville, everyone in the country was probably rooting for Ohio today. It's nothing against Florida. That's what makes the tournament so special."

Ohio (21-11) was making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994 because it erased a 19-point second-half deficit to beat Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference championship game last week. The Bobcats almost pulled off another magical come-from-behind victory on Friday.

Guard Mychal Green erased a 55-35 Florida lead and capped a 25-5 Ohio run by pulling up on a fast break and swishing a three-point shot from the top of the key with 2 minutes 7 seconds remaining. Green's sixth three-pointer drew Ohio to a tie at 60.

Junior point guard Anthony Roberson came up with a huge play for Florida when he made a layup and drew a foul after slipping into the lane and snatching forward David Lee's air ball.

Roberson, who made only 3 of 15 shots and missed all eight of his three-point attempts, completed the three-point play, giving Florida a 63-60 lead with 42 seconds remaining. Ohio turned over the ball on two of its final three possessions.

Walsh led the Gators with 18 points but made only 3 of 13 shots and was forced into taking several questionable shots during the second half.

Green hit 6 of 9 three-point attempts and finished with a game-high 24 points for Ohio. Florida, which looked dominant while beating Kentucky, 70-53, in the SEC tournament title game, will get another chance to play up to its high seed Sunday against Villanova.

"At this point in our careers, it's all about survive and advance," said Lee, who is Florida's only senior. "There are no future seedings for other tournaments on the line now, it's not how many you win by, it's just that you have to survive and advance and that's what we did today."

• VILLANOVA 55, NEW MEXICO 47: In a game that could only be described as ugly, the Wildcats (23-7) advanced to the second round for the first time since 1997 despite making just 28 percent of their shots.

Fifth-seeded Villanova jumped to a 12-2 lead and used smothering man-to-man defense to build a 34-11 halftime lead over the 12th-seeded Lobos. However, Villanova then went cold during the second half and had to hold on for the victory.

New Mexico's 11-first half points were the fewest by a team in an NCAA tournament game since Wake Forest scored 10 en route to a 79-63 first round loss to Butler in 2001.

During the first half, the Lobos (26-7) made 4 of 22 shots and missed all nine of their three point attempts. Still, New Mexico trailed only 52-45 when Alfred Neale swished a three-pointer with 1:09 remaining in the game.

Villanova guard Mike Nardi, who scored 15 points, put the game away with a pair of free throws with 14 seconds remaining.

New Mexico was led by senior forward Danny Granger, who scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.

"I didn't feel any panic," Villanova Coach Jay Wright said of his team's second-half slump. "I sensed frustration. I sensed kind of disbelief. Allan Ray had about five straight wide open jumpers that he missed. It's a crazy game. The NCAA tournament is about handling different situations. I feel good about the way we handled the situation."

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