Sunday, June 24, 2018
Sports

For Florida Gators, playing fast a breather

AUSTIN, Texas

Push it. Faster. Run with it. Quicker. Shoot it. Like it was raining basketballs.

After all, this is how Northwestern State plays. Breathlessly. It keeps the pass going, all the time, and it tries to turn a game of basketball into a game of pinball. It substitutes five players at a time, like a hockey team swapping lines, and it treats the shot clock as if it's a silly notion.

As it turns out, that game plan was just fine with Florida, too.

Really? You want to race? Honestly? You want to play roadrunner basketball? You want to time shots with your heartbeat and possessions with a microwave?

Fine. That way, the game will be over fast.

Call it 79-47, Florida.

For all the things that have been suggested the Gators lacked, there are some things they have, too. Friday's game was an example. UF treated this second-round NCAA Tournament game as a clean slate, and as a fresh start, and as a brand new highlight tape.

Also, it went about exposing the legend of Northwestern State.

Yeah, yeah. The Demons substitute five at a time. But basketball is a game more about quality than quantity, and the bare truth of it is there are very few Northwestern State players who could fit into the rotation with the Gators.

Yeah, yeah. The Demons led the nation in scoring at 81 points per game. But not against a team such as Florida, which had bulk and size and a defensive intensity that bedeviled the Demons.

"We're going to always play fast," Gators coach Billy Donovan sad. "They want to play fast. It's no different for us. We want to play fast. Everyone was talking about the fact they rotate five guys in, five guys out, our guys are going to get worn out. We're playing pretty much eight guys. We can manage eight guys and rest enough.

"The faster the game, the more, I think, it was to our liking. I think that's the way we want to play. I was never concerned about the pace. We wanted to play just as fast as they did."

As it turns out, the Demons were the team that couldn't keep up. Oh, for a half, it was interesting, but that was more because the Gators were on their heels for the first half. Once the defensive coordinator in Donovan came out, it was over.

A 22-point victory margin?

Thirty-four points fewer than Northwestern State's average?

A 19 percent shooting percentage in the second half?

This was a clobbering. On a day when No. 13 seed La Salle upset No. 4 Kansas State, on a day when No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast upset No. 2 Georgetown, this was a signal the No. 3 Gators might have a stick-around factor in this tournament. At least, as long as they can play from ahead. This win made them 27-1 in games decided by double digits.

As it turns out, most of the buzz about Northwestern State was a myth. It really wasn't that good, and it really wasn't that deep.

"You could feel us like an old car trying to crank up," said coach Mike McConathy. "You could feel it want to crank, but it didn't."

According to McConathy, much of that was due to the length of Florida players Erik Murphy and Patric Young, who combined for 34 points and 17 rebounds.

Granted, both of them had memorable nights. Murphy hit 8-of-11 and Young hit 6-of-10 from the floor.

But another part was the Gators' ball protection. In a high-tempo game, Northwestern State had only two steals.

Then again, there was the Gators' second-half defense. Northwestern State hit 54.2 percent of its shots in the first half. It hit 19.2 percent in the second, including going 0-for-9 on 3-pointers.

Oh, if the tournament promised to be this easy. It won't be, of course.

But with the way the season ended (5-4), the Gators needed something good to happen. They needed a game in control, a game with great tempo and high efficiency.

It's strange.

At Northwestern State, a school from Natchitoches, La., one of the prevailing legends is of a young woman named Isabella, a young beauty who lost her beloved in a duel. (He was fighting over another girl.) Isabella became a nun and later killed herself, and her ghost has been floating around campus in one building or another over the years.

Alas, like the basketball Demons, there is no substance there, either.

As for Florida, it was a good opening argument. And that beats making none at all.

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