The No. 7-seed Florida Gators saw their season come to an end on Saturday as they fell 72-68 to the No. 4-seed Louisville Cardinals in the Elite Eight round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Florida head coach Billy Donovan, senior point guard Erving Walker and freshman guard Bradley Beal all spoke following the game.
Blowing a double-digit second-half lead in the Elite Eight for the second time in as many seasons, things were somber at the podium when the Gators took a seat. It was especially unnerving for Walker who was the only player on the court who knew for certain that it would be his final game in a Florida uniform.
“It feels terrible. We had a lead; we gave it up late,” he said. “We just didn’t make shots down the end and didn’t defend them well. They were able to get down the lane and make some big plays. […] We knew they were going to make a run at some point. That’s a great team in Louisville. We thought we had control of it and we thought we would be able to keep them at bay, but they just continued to make plays and took the lead.”
Walker said the entire locker room was “hurting” but even that bad feeling would not change what he has gone through since joining the Gators. “I had a great four years here. I had the best four years of my life,” he said.
Both players also expressed their sorrow that Florida had to lose at this point, so close to reaching their ultimate goal. “We had a good journey. We’re disappointed that it had to end right here, but when you reflect back later you realize we did a great thing by making it to the Elite Eight,” Walker said. Beal added, “It was a tough journey for us. A lot of people counted us out. We stuck with it, and we played together as a team. We got this far – I’m real proud of my guys. It was just unfortunate that we ended up losing today.”
Walker ends his career in orange and blue with his name littered throughout the team’s all-time record book. He leads Florida in career assists (547) and minutes (4,358) and comes in second in game played (144) and three-point field goals both made (285) and attempted (755). Walker is also fourth in scoring (1,777), fifth in games started (113) and total field goal attempts (1,345), seventh in both free throws made (436) and attempted (552), and ninth in steals (159).
IF HE HAD TO LOSE…
[EXPAND Click to expand and read the remainder of this post.]Obviously Donovan hoped to lead his team to their first Final Four berth since 2007 but if he had to fall in the Elite Eight there is no other coach he would rather lose to than Louisville’s Rick Pitino. “If someone said to me, ‘You have to lose a game. Who would it be to?’ I’d have to say him,” he said. “Obviously he’s towards the end of his career.”
Donovan then went on a mini-rant in hopes of bolstering his former coach’s hall of fame chances. “I’ve never said this publicly, but I’ll say it here. I’m absolutely shocked he’s not in the hall of fame. Shocked. It should have happened a long time ago, in my opinion,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a coach in the country that has done more with less. And believe me, I was on a team with a lot of less. He’s done it when Kentucky was on probation, a second time taking Louisville to a Final Four. To me, that’s what I’d like to see happen for him as he finishes it up. It hurts me, it hurts our team losing but to see him [win and continue on], I’ll be very happy for him.”
There are plenty of reasons Florida lost on Saturday but one of them was the coaching of Pitino and specifically his decision to switch from a 2-3 zone to man-to-man defense in the second half. The Cardinals were able to make the Gators take more difficult threes and continued to force UF to turn the ball over.
“The difference in the game, if you look at it, was our 14 turnovers to their six,” Donovan said. “They didn’t really turn us over much in the press, it was more in the half court, handling and making decisions and recognizing what was open. At times we did not do that. […] At this time of the season, against the [quality of] teams you’re playing against, you know teams are going to make a run at you. That’s going to happen. They made a great run, and I give them a lot of credit.”
A TOUGH WAY TO GO OUT
Reporters, analysts and fans will draw a lot of similarities between the Gators’ collapse in 2012 to the way the team folded under pressure in 2011’s Elite Eight. Donovan, however, does not feel the same way and believes that Florida played much better in this contest than last year’s team did in their final game of the season.
“Totally different actually. Last year we really got beat on loose balls. I didn’t feel like we got beat there. I felt like our guys did a great job on loose balls. There were a couple that got away from us. I really thought that, for the most part, we really played the right way and played a pretty good game,” he said. “I think we had some defensive breakdowns a couple times. I also thought offensively we were way too rushed.”
The Gators losing on Saturday is undoubtedly a disappointment, but Donovan said it will not take anything away from his memories of the 2011-12 season.
“[I will remember this team as] a team that was really young and immature in a lot of ways and, in front of my eyes, I got to watch them grow up and mature competitively,” he said proudly. “To see where Patric Young was at the start of the year in January to where he finished. To see where Brad was in November and December to see where he finished – same thing with Erik Murphy. Our guys grew up, and I think that was one of my biggest difficulties with them during the course of the season.
“There was an immature competitiveness about them. I don’t mean that negatively; they just didn’t understand what it took. Because of them being great kids, it was great to see them mature and grow that way because you don’t get to this point in time unless you have some substance. And I think our guys have some substance and some toughness and some qualities. They poured their heart and soul into trying to win the game.”
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NOTES AND QUOTES
» Beal on if the bitter end to the season changes his decision-making process at all: “I’m really not even focusing on next year right now. I’m still affected by this loss right now. I’m just going to focus in and bond with the team still. We just had a tough loss; I’m really not focusing on the future right now.”
» Beal on his travel at the end of the game: “I just had bad footing. I travelled. I travelled but he may have bumped me but whatever. I still have to be strong with the ball and just learn my surroundings and be more careful in those situations.”
» Walker on the players returning to the team: “This program is still on the [rise]. They got a lot of great players, and I think Coach Donovan will continue to do a great job. I think they’ll get to the Final Four next year.”
» Donovan on wishing Pitino got more respect from Kentucky’s fans and administration: “He could have gone anywhere else and there would be statues built of him in Lexington with what he’s done. Because of that rivalry there’s some people that can’t handle it. I just wish the people back there, the whole state would just embrace him for the job that he’s done at both programs.”[/EXPAND]