Friday, April 20, 2018
Sports

Florida must improve from showing vs. Albany

ORLANDO

At the time, what the University of Florida needed was a little muscle, thank you very much.

The moment had passed when the game required flair, and the opportunity for finesse had long since gone. This was no longer the time for speed or for sizzle. This wasn't the place for high-flying basketball. This was time for the thunder, and for a brief instant, Patric Young had all that the Gators needed.

So UF's senior center went up, and he slammed the basketball down, and he restored order like a judge banging a gavel.

And, for the moment, it was enough.

Ah, but will it last past Saturday? At this point, we do not know.

We do know this: Young was enough for Florida in its NCAA Tournament opening-round victory over Albany on Thursday, a game that ended with the Gators exhaling loudly at its conclusion. His three-point play — a vicious slam and a free throw — with 14:04 to play was the igniter to a 9-0 run that gave UF the lead for good and hold off the Great Danes 67-55, and feel darned lucky they had done so.

Albany was like a giant wad of gum on the Gators' sneakers in this one. They could not be scraped off, and they could not be tossed aside. A No. 16 seed, playing its third game in six days, the Great Danes took the fight to Florida, and they stayed with the Gators for the first 26 minutes.

Along the way, Albany opened a fresh can of questions about Florida. Are the Gators quite as good as they are cracked up to be defensively? Do they have a take-control type of player for the last couple of minutes in a game? Are they talented enough to justify their overall No. 1 seed?

And should they really be favored over Pitt, their next-round opponent that simply crushed Colorado on Thursday?

"This wasn't one of our better moments," UF coach Billy Donovan admitted. "It was good enough to win, but is it good enough to play against a team like Pittsburgh? Probably not. We'll have to play a lot better."

Granted, the point is to survive, and the Gators did that. But if an opening-round game is a statement, the Gators said this: "Whew!" They played like, oh, a No. 5 seed, maybe a 7.

Who would have thought this? The Gators were the overall No. 1 seed, the No. 1 team in the country and the winners of 26 games in a row? Albany? It had lost 14 times while playing in the American East Conference. By comparison, most of its players were a bit more mechanical, a bit less fluid, than their Gator counterparts. Yet, the Great Danes stayed in the game despite being outscored 38-12 in the paint.

"We came here to win," Albany coach Will Brown said. "People think that's coach talk. But a 16 is going to beat a 1 at some point, and we wanted to be that team."

The Danes might have, too, if they hadn't run out of gas. Which opens the door to questions about Pitt and opponents that might wait beyond them. A game like this, even with a victory, is sure to open the door to questions about the Gators.

"They're the No. 1 overall seed," Brown said. "They're arguably the best team in the country. They've got a Hall of Fame coach, tremendous length, athleticism, McDonald's All-Americans coming off the bench. If there is a better team in the country, let me know. I'm not sure how you can question them."

A moment later, Brown was asked his prediction on the Florida-Pitt game.

"It'll be close," he said.

Oh.

Against Albany, Florida won because it had all of the advantages. It had the size inside, and it had the skill on the perimeter. In particular, it had Young, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds.

"Did you see him?" Brown said. "If he doesn't make it in the NBA, he's going to play in the NFL. And if he doesn't make it in the NFL, he's going to make it in the WWE. If he doesn't go to the WWE, maybe the UFC. I mean, that guy is enormous. They're quicker, bigger, more athletic at every position than us. That's why we have to play so well and so sharp if we were going to win that game."

Brown laughed. Funny, not a lot of Gators were doing the same. This game left solemn all over their faces.

"I'm proud of our guys because, one, they found a way to win when they didn't play their best," Donovan said, "and you know what, they've always been really good at being able to learn valuable lessons in a lot of ways."

This time, the lesson was easy.

Play better.

Or prepare to go home.

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