OMAHA – The hottest team entering this week’s West Region semifinals may not be the quadrant’s No. 1 seed (Michigan State), nor the Big East champion (Louisville), nor another Big East squad (Marquette) that spent a fair amount of time ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams.
Rather, it might be Florida, the region’s seventh seed, which had dropped six of its last 10 games entering the NCAA tournament. But the Gators smashed 15th-seeded Norfolk State’s glass slipper with an 84-50 victory Sunday and advanced to a Sweet 16 matchup Thursday against Marquette in Phoenix.
Florida gave up 47.5 points per game to its first two NCAA tournament opponents; it also won its first two NCAA tournament games by an average of 30 points.
“I think we have a lot more things that we’re capable of doing, and we just haven’t shown it yet,” said Florida guard Bradley Beal, who finished with 14 points and nine rebounds. “It’s just a matter of time, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to get exposed pretty soon.”
As one of two No. 15 seeds that won Friday, Norfolk State (26-10) experienced a wave of national attention in the 48 hours that followed its victory over Missouri. The Spartans’ follow-up performance was not nearly as stirring. Center Kyle O’Quinn, who charmed the country with both his play and his personality, was held to four points and three rebounds against Florida. The team shot 27.3 percent.
On the other hand, Kenny Boynton (20 points) led five Gators who scored in double figures. Florida (25-10) shot 53 percent.
The theory went that if Norfolk State could handle the break-neck tempo created by Missouri, it would be equipped to do the same against Florida and its persistent — but not as intense — full-court press. But that assumed several factors that contributed to the Spartans’ 86-84 win over the Tigers would remain present.
Missouri failed to double-team O’Quinn, and he finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds. The Spartans also shot 5 of 6 from three-point range in the second half.
On Sunday, however, the Gators implemented a post trap on O’Quinn every time he touched the ball in the post, and Norfolk State’s collective shooting touch cooled considerably. The Spartans shot 2 for 12 (16.7 percent) from three-point range in the first half.
“I know O’Quinn got a lot of publicity,” Florida Coach Billy Donovan said. “He had a tremendous game against Missouri. But I really thought the thing that went unnoticed in that game was the three-point line. I thought that was huge for them.”
Meantime, Florida caught fire from beyond the arc. The Gators are known for their reliance on long-range shooting, but they made just 1 of 15 attempts from beyond the three-point arc in the first half of Friday’s 71-45 win over 10th-seeded Virginia.
The Gators combined to shoot 7 for 16 (43.8 percent) from three-point range in the first half against Norfolk State. Florida utilized a 25-0 run that spanned 6 minutes 40 seconds. And just like that, the final outcome seemed all but settled.
“Once we went on that 25-0 run,” Beal said, “they kind of shut down.”