ORLANDO — Florida can’t keep marching through the NCAA Tournament like this, playing at a high level only in a small spurt. It cannot play like national title expectations are weighing it down.
The top-ranked Gators will never get to Dallas, and maybe not even Memphis, if their performance Thursday in a 67-55 win over No. 16 seed Albany is anything indicative of what lies ahead.
Sure, Billy Donovan’s team might be a little fatigued mentally and physically, which can happen when you plow through the Southeastern Conference unbeaten and reel off 27 consecutive victories. Then again, what NCAA participant isn’t a little worn out this time of year?
But if anybody should have felt energized at the Amway Center, it was the Gators. They were the ones who had the support of nearly all 16,074 spectators. They had the senior-laden lineup primed for one last March Madness run. Albany was the one forced to play a Tuesday night game in Dayton, then board a plane for the land of Mickey Mouse.
Yet with a little over 15 minutes remaining, Florida found itself deadlocked 39-39 with a third-place team from America East, one of the nation’s bottom-five leagues. For a little while, flashbacks to No. 16 Princeton almost knocking off Alonzo Mourning-led Georgetown in 1989 (losing 50-49) had to have crossed the minds of some in Gator nation.
Florida (33-2) didn’t so much sleepwalk through the first half as, the way Donovan put it, not stay “as connected as a group defensively” as they had most of the season.
“Coach Donovan was saying to us after the game, ‘This isn’t going to be enough, enough to keep our season going,’ ” said senior center and Providence High graduate Patric Young. “And we just look at each other and say, ‘We know that there’s more inside of us, more that we need to give.’ ”
Albany needed two things to happen to become the first No. 16 seed to push a No. 1 out the tournament door. One, the Great Danes had to be close to great, and they were for 25-plus minutes.
They patiently ran their offense, hit open jump shots, and weren’t the least bit fazed over giving up some thunderous dunks. Albany adhered to coach Will Brown’s game plan to keep UF sharpshooter Michael Frazier from raining down threes (he was 1 of 4).
Secondly, the Gators would have to help Albany by not being anywhere near in top form. Except for a 12-2 spurt after that 39-39 tie, triggered by a Young three-point play and four consecutive Albany turnovers, Florida was about as ordinary as it could be.
Not dreadful. Not sloppy. The Gators were just enough below-average to keep things interesting.
“And could that be expectations?” Donovan said. “Could it be emotionally drained, long year? Could it be, hey, Albany is in a play-in game? I don’t know what it necessarily could be. I thought we practiced well [Wednesday]. We seemed to be in a good place, pretty focused, and sometimes you don’t get the performance you want.”
Had it not been for UF’s bench, specifically Dorian Finney-Smith (16 points) and Kasey Hill (10 points), the Great Danes might have left the Amway Center feeling like top dogs in college basketball. But they didn’t have enough firepower or energy in the last eight minutes to cut into a double-digit deficit.
That’s the problem with playing Florida. You have to outplay the Gators for 40 minutes, and nobody has been good enough to do it since Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier beat the buzzer 109 days ago.
Now ninth-seeded Pittsburgh, a far superior team athletically and defensively to Albany, awaits Florida on Saturday. The Gators cannot afford to be ordinary against Pitt. If they don’t want their national title dreams to die 120 miles from home, they must summon more from inside of themselves.
It’s hard to imagine Young and his senior classmates won’t do what’s necessary to march on.