Despite struggling in the early going and trailing by 11 points late in the first half, the three-seed Florida Gators (29-7) triumphed in a game that was lasted until early Saturday morning and advanced to the Elite Eight for a school-record third-straight season with a 62-50 victory over the 15-seed Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (26-11) at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, TX.
Florida has now been victorious in its last six appearances in the Sweet 16 and faces a short turnaround as it is set to take on the four-seed Michigan Wolverines in the finals of the South Region of the 2013 NCAA Tournament at 2:20 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
The Gators used a 16-2 half-ending run to turn an 11-point deficit into a four-point halftime lead and never trailed again. Redshirt senior guard Mike Rosario led the way with a game-high 15 points, team-high five rebounds and three steals and was supported by stellar play from some of UF’s reserves.
FGCU opened up the contest red hot, jumping ahead 15-4 after an 11-0 run as Florida started 2-for-10 from the field and 0-for-5 from downtown.
The Gators’ cold shooting and tight play continued deep into the first half as the Eagles maintained their double-digit lead. Through the first 12:47 of the game, Florida trailed 19-9 while going 4-for-20 from the floor, 0-for-5 from beyond the arc and just 1-for-4 from the free throw line.
Suddenly, the Gators found their shooting stroke and hit three-straight triples including two from freshman guard Michael Frazier II as part of a 16-2 half-ending run that gave them a 30-26 lead at the break. Energy and suffocating defense from junior forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguete helped UF hold FGCU scoreless for nearly five full minutes and played a big part in its resurgence.
Florida opened the second half by scoring seven-straight points and stretching its lead to 11. After a 6:43 scoring drought that included seven consecutive missed shots, the Gators got on the board again and bumped their advantage back up to 11 with as many minutes remaining in the game.
UF maintained its intensity over the next few minutes and increased its lead up to a game-high 12 points as Yeguete blocked a shot and Prather eventually netted a layup.
Four-straight points by FGCU cut its deficit to seven points with 2:56 remaining, but Florida continued piling it on.
Taking the ball out of bounds at halfcourt with a nine-point lead and two minutes left, Rosario inbounded the ball off Eagles G Christopher Varidel’s back and took off to the hoop for a highlight dunk. The Gators wound up winning by 12 points, outscoring their opponents by four in the first half and eight in the second.
Florida only shot 38.6 percent from the field in the contest but took 13 more shots than FGCU over the course of the game. The Gators won the rebounding battle 35-28 (15-6 on the offensive glass) and forced the Eagles into 20 turnovers while coughing the ball up just 10 times themselves.
Joining Rosario in scoring the basketball were junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13 points) and Prather (11). Wilbekin was only 3-for-11 from the field and 0-for-3 from beyond the arc but hit 7-of-8 free throws and managed the game superbly for Florida. Prather was 4-for-6 from the floor and 3-for-4 from the charity stripe.
Young matched Rosario with a team-high five boards. Yeguete’s defense was outstanding and he led the Gators in steals (four) and blocks (two) while grabbing four boards. Senior guard Kenny Boynton also had a cold shooting night but was aggressive with the ball, grabbing four rebounds and hitting 3-of-4 free throws.
FGCU PG Brett Comer, the team’s star player, finished with just four points on 1-of-5 shooting and saw his seven assists negated by a career-high nine turnovers. G Sherwood Brown led the Eagles with 14 points and a game-high six boards.
Florida on Sunday will be looking to get past the Elite Eight and to the Final Four for the first time since 2007. The Gators have blown second-half leads in each of the last two seasons in the Elite Eight (to Butler and Louisville, respectively) and are determined to get over the hump. Sunday’s contest will air on CBS.