PHOENIX, Ariz. — It took a little prodding to get him to admit it, but Florida freshman guard Bradley Beal finally acknowledged that his performance in Thursday night's 68-58 victory over No. 3 seed Marquette in the NCAA Tournament West Regional semifinals was most likely his best at a Gator.
Beal's final stat line: 21 points (game-high), six rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals. He was 8-of-10 from the field.
"I guess it was," Beal said when asked if Thursday night's game was the best he's played so far this season for the Gators. "I think I had a lot of confidence in myself tonight, as well as my teammates. I found ways to get open and just stayed aggressive and just tried to make plays."
While the Gators struggled from the field most of the game, shooting 25.9 percent from 3-point range, their defense held Marquette to 30.8 percent from the field and 28.6 from 3-point range — and Beal kept the Gators in the game offensively.
"That was huge," Florida senior guard Erving Walker said. "Without Brad, we definitely don't win that game. Our defense was great, but you still have to put the ball in the hole. He did that for us tonight, and I'm so proud of him the way he played."
After the game, Marquette coach Buzz Williams had high praise for Beal.
"I think he's really good," Williams said. "I think he's really, really good. Nothing against Erving Walker, nothing against Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Patric Young. But in a lot of ways I think Bradley Beal is their swing vote, because he's so 'multiversatile,' talented, can guard multiple guys. He plays multiple positions, whether they're small, whether they're big. He can beat you off the bounce using their ball screens, he can catch and shoot. I think he was their — I think he's their leading rebounder, isn't he? I think he's really good. And he was really good (Thursday night)."
RETURN ENGAGEMENT: Florida will be making its second consecutive trip to the Elite Eight when the Gators face Louisville at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. After losing six of their final 10 games before entering the tournament, the Gators have won three straight games to survive and advance.
"It means a lot," junior guard Kenny Boynton said. "It goes to show the losses early in the season made us stronger. I think before the NCAA Tournament we saw every defense and offense there could be. I think those losses, they fueled us to this point in time. But we're happy to be here."
Florida coach Billy Donovan said advancing to his fifth Elite Eight with the Gators is special.
"I think it's a great compliment to those guys and how hard they've worked, the schedule that we've played, them wanting to learn and grow and get better," Donovan said. "I'm very proud and very happy that we've been able to move on this far in the tournament."
The Gators fell one game short of the Final Four last season, and are hoping to avoid another letdown this year.
"We're that close," sophomore center Patric Young said. "We've just got to lock in, take care of our bodies and come out Saturday ready to play. And hopefully we can get back to New Orleans."
The Gators were in New Orleans at the beginning of the month for the SEC Tournament.
SURVIVING ADVERSITY: Donovan is a firm believer in letting his best shooters take shots, even when they aren't falling. With junior forward Erik Murphy struggling badly from the field in the first half (0-for-5), Donovan had a strong halftime message.
"I told him at halftime, 'I want you to shoot every time you're open,'" Donovan said. "'And if I see you not shooting the ball, I'm taking you out of the game. You've got a responsibility to every guy in this room that when you shoot the ball, you have to expect it to go in. If it doesn't, we'll be fine.' Even though he didn't shoot it, he made a couple of shots, I thought he was more aggressive."
Murphy finished just 3-of-13 (1-of-8 from beyond the arc), but had 10 rebounds and three blocks in 30 minutes.
Donovan said he believes some of the adversity the Gators faced during the season — particularly down the stretch following the loss of Will Yeguete to an ankle injury has made them a better team now.
"When you're relied upon for the first time in your life by other players, and coaching staff, and people, there's a responsibility that comes with that," Donovan said. "So when it doesn't go well, a lot of times they don't know how to handle it. And I think going through some of those adversities that they had to go through, it's forced them to kind of grow and mature."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.