TAMPA — The St. Pete Times Forum was a lively atmosphere on Saturday, and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission had reason to feel content about the region's performance in hosting its latest NCAA basketball event.
A strong walkup crowd bolstered attendance after the pace of ticket sales began to quicken on Friday, commission executive director Rob Higgins said.
"We saw steady sales on (Friday) and then we saw a lot of fans out here early (on Saturday) right when the box office opened," he said. "We were really pleased."
Saturday's games drew 17,771, better than Thursday's day session (14,835) and night session (15,504).
Higgins said determining the event's success involves considering feedback from the NCAA, fans and the teams, but he said there was reason to think Tampa could be in the running the next time the NCAA opens bidding on sites. The next available openings are in 2014-16.
"We know from the 2008 Women's Final Four that we did a good job because we got 2015," Higgins said.
Higgins said the $35 million in planned upgrades to the St. Pete Times Forum will only enhance Tampa's chances of landing future NCAA Tournament games.
BOYNTON BOUNCES BACK: Florida sophomore G Kenny Boynton sprained his left ankle in Saturday's game, but is expected to be able to play when the Gators play Thursday in New Orleans.
Boynton sustained the injury as he came down awkwardly after shooting a jumper with 4:24 remaining.
"He has a mild ankle sprain," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "There's a little bit of swelling at this point. I do not expect him to be in a position that he will not be able to play. He should be able to play and should be fine for next week."
Boynton returned to the sideline during a timeout with 3:20 remaining, and was inserted into the lineup, but Donovan pulled him back out because he said he didn't want Boynton to have to defend on the ailing ankle.
Boynton, who had 12 points and five assists, walked gingerly on the ankle as he headed for the bus with teammates, and said he expected to be "just fine."
HARD TO SAY GOODBYE: Saturday's early game marked the final time on the court for some key West Virginia seniors who have seen the program reach new heights in their time in Morgantown.
Among them: Gs Joe Mazzulla and Jonnie West and F John Flowers. Mazzulla has had a consistent impact for four seasons, right up through Saturday when he led West Virginia with 20 points and four assists.
But perhaps his biggest feat is overcoming a shoulder injury two years ago that coach Bob Huggins said few players have recovered from. The resulting surgery and rehab were taxing.
"It's hard for anybody to understand what Joe's been through," Huggins said. "I mean, he woke up every day for the better part of a year not knowing whether he'd ever play basketball again.
"(He) actually didn't know whether he'd ever be able to get his arm above his shoulder. And I don't think anybody will ever realize the physical part that he went through, the time he spent in the training room, the rehab that he did. It took him pretty much a year and a half or almost two years to be able to play again.
"A lot of people wouldn't have done that."
West, son of West Virginia great Jerry West, is a fifth-year student who had intended to give up basketball and concentrate on his master's degree this season. That is, until Huggins helped change his mind.
"I asked him to come back out," Huggins said. "And he said, 'Coach, if you need me, I'm there.' "
Of his entire senior class, Huggins added, "They're good people who are going to be very successful in whatever it is that they choose to do."
DRY SPELL: West Virginia's loss could, in part, be attributed to a six-minute-plus drought to start the second half, during which the Mountaineers squandered an eight-point halftime lead and wound up trailing by three. The unsightly stretch didn't end until Mazzulla scored on a driving scoop shot with 13:37 left.
Mazzulla attributed it to a "lack of focus on our part. … I think that had a lot to do with (the loss). We knew they were going to come out strong, and we had talked about trying to weather that storm in the first four or five minutes, and we didn't do a good job."
With the Mountaineers trying seemingly everything to find the basket, Kentucky embarked on an 11-0 run to start the second half, taking a 44-41 lead before Mazzulla's basket.
MINI SWAMP: Florida played before an overwhelmingly partisan crowd for the second straight game, and the crowd noise was something of a factor for UCLA late in the game.
Bruins F Reeves Nelson admitted as much.
"We knew coming in that it was going to basically be a road game for us, so they earned it by doing well in the regular season," Nelson said. "So that was to their advantage, and their crowd definitely helped them at the end of the game."