The Florida Gators looked anything but the No. 1 team in the land for 26 minutes on Thursday against the upset-minded No. 16 Albany Great Danes in the round of 64, but Billy Donovan's squad eventually woke up in the second half to fend off both history and Albany, 67-55.
It was a whimper rather than a dominant showing by the top team in the NCAA tournament, but significant contributions from the bench allowed the Gators to hang around in the first half before they got it together in the second. They finished with 26 bench points, shot 51 percent from the field overall and saw five players score in double figures.
Albany was propelled by senior DJ Evans, who shot 50 percent from the field, scored 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds. He got help in the form of two others in double figures, but the epic pace the Great Danes set in the first half significantly cooled and they wound up with a total 20-of-51 from the field.
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Coming into the contest, the Gators should have expected a fight as the Great Danes clearly didn't subscribe to the theories that a No. 16 seed cannot down a top seed despite it having never occurred. Senior guard Peter Hooley was adamant in this stance in the days before the game, according to the Associated Press, via CBS New York:
We’ve been playing great basketball the last three weeks. We’ve been a resilient group. Every time our back is against the wall, we’ve managed to keep fighting and staying together and coming out with some good results. We know that all of us are going to be prepared well and we’re going to be staying together and really believe that anything can happen.
As the Gators were notorious for doing every now and then during the regular season, they got off to a slow start and actually fell behind in the early goings on Thursday.
Five points from Evans and an overall 4-of-6 mark from the field gave Albany a 9-5 lead going into the first timeout. The lead would exchange hands a few more times after the break, but it was abundantly clear at that point it would take a titanic effort from Evans for the Great Danes to fend off the Gators:
Instead of regressing on what appeared to be an unsustainable shooting percentage, the Great Danes kept sticking around thanks to six-point outbursts from both John Puk and Gary Johnson early on.
But as CBS Sports' Jerry Palm illustrates, Albany simply could not pull away as it continued to make mistakes expected of a No. 16 seed:
With 7:40 left in the first half, Florida was able to keep it knotted at 23 thanks to a superb 10 points off the bench from Dorian Finney-Smith, which was quite the surprise considering he averages 8.9 points per game.
Eventually the kind rim turned against Albany, and the athleticism differential reared its ugly head as the Gators totaled eight fast-break points with just a minute remaining in the first half. Evans had 10 points of his own for Albany by that point, but his team's overall shooting percentage dipped to 50 percent.
Against the Gators, a cold streak simply won't cut it. Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel provided further details:
As expected, Donovan was not pleased with a 34-28 advantage at halftime over a No. 16 seed, as he stated on the TBS broadcast before going to the locker room:
"Well I don't think we've played defense like we have all year."
To be fair, no amount of quality defense could have stopped the Great Danes from such ridiculous shooting totals for much of the first half.
Surely to Donovan's great frustration, the first five minutes of the second half were much of the same, as Dan Wolken of USA Today helps to illustrate:
With about 14 minutes left, the tide finally turned.
First, it was Patric Young grabbing an offensive board, shoving a Great Dane to the floor in a tussle and slamming it home. And-1. On the next possession, Florida grabbed the board and Kasey Hill sprinted down the court for an easy finish. Another turnover led to two more points for Hill from the charity stripe. Finney-Smith put home a dunk the next time down the court.
Young's dunk in particular clearly set the tone for the rest of the game:
The 9-0 run made it 48-39, a deficit from which the Great Danes would never fully recover.
From there, the two sides exchanged buckets but the Gators nursed a lead that stuck around nine points before the final buzzer sounded.
While unable to make history, the Albany program continues to be on the cusp of consistently making noise in the Big Dance. The Great Danes were aided by a sluggish performance from the Gators, but can take solace in the performance and build on it for the future.
Things are more complex for the Gators. It's great Florida is not the first loser in what is now a 117-0 advantage No. 1 seeds hold over N0. 16 seeds, but there is no time to wipe the brow in relief.
Up next is a date with No. 9 Pittsburgh, which is fresh off a dominant 77-48 upset over No. 8 Colorado. Should the Gators come out in a nonchalant manner once again, it could very well be their last game of the season after winning 27 straight.