Sluggish early, UF raises its level of play and avoids a first-round upset by defeating Western Kentucky 69-56.
Looking more than a little haggard, Florida guard Teddy Dupay pulled out the tail of his jersey and blew out a large puff of air as he walked away.
The first round was over.
"Thank God," he said.
In an NCAA Tournament rife with upsets, No. 3 seed Florida overcame an 11-point first-half deficit to beat No. 14 Western Kentucky 69-56 in the South Region's first round Friday at the Superdome.
The Gators (24-6) play No. 11 Temple at 2:20 p.m. Sunday for a spot in the Sweet 16.
"It's survive and advance," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "Western Kentucky showed it was more than capable of beating us, but our guys stuck together and maintained their composure. I hope we can learn from this."
The opening round has been littered with learning opportunities for the Gators in recent years, but it's always the same lesson. Making a school-record third consecutive NCAA appearance, they struggled in the first round for the third consecutive time.
In 1999, Florida rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit against Penn _ its biggest NCAA comeback _ and last season needed a buzzer-beater from Mike Miller to escape Butler.
"It seems like every year we play teams people have never heard of and they come out and play really tough," senior Major Parker said. "The first game is always the toughest."
From the start, Western Kentucky (24-7) seemed determined to add Florida to the list of first-round victims. Chris Marcus, the Hilltoppers' 7-1 center, hogged the lane, the spotlight and the statistics: two turnaround jumpers, three rebounds, two blocks, one steal, one foul in the first four minutes.
Anyone else want to play?
The Hilltoppers took a 17-6 lead on back-to-back baskets by Nashon McPherson _ a nifty reverse layup and a mid-range jumper _ when Donovan called timeout to say a few things to his disorganized team.
"Bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep, bleep," center Udonis Haslem said before offering a G-rated translation of Donovan's tirade. "He told us to maintain our focus and not get rattled."
Sparked by seven points from guard Brett Nelson, the Gators went on a 14-4 run to pull within 21-20 on Haslem's fastbreak basket with 6:09 left. They took their first lead, 26-24, on Haslem's baseline jumper at 1:24 and went to the locker room tied at 26.
The Hilltoppers scored the first six points of the second half, but Florida answered with a 14-0 run that seemed to leave scuff marks on Cinderella's slipper.
"We lost our mental edge," Hilltoppers coach Dennis Felton said. "I think our belief that we were going to win kind of leaked away at that stage of the game."
WKU's seven-game win streak ended.
Haslem, limited by Marcus' inside presence to six points with five turnovers in the first half, finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds with one second-half turnover.
Nelson, who jumped-started UF's runs, scored 12 second-half points to finish with an NCAA Tournament personal-best 19.
"At the start we weren't executing our offense very well," Nelson said. "In the second half we got the game going up and down the floor and started executing better."
After his early dominance, Marcus faded. Facing a double team every time he got the ball down low, he took only two shots in the final 16 minutes of the first half and did not score again until the 10:32 mark of the second half, with WKU trailing 46-40. He led WKU with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
"It seemed like whenever I got the ball they trapped," Marcus said. "I tried to hit the opposite guard, but they swatted the ball away."
Using a matchup zone, Florida held WKU to 17.6 percent from three-point range, 3-for-17. During its seven-game win streak, Western made 44.2 percent of its threes.
"Our team defense was awesome," Dupay said. "The three-point line is the key to tournament play and we took that away. And when they drove in the second half, they ran into a wall."
Last season, UF turned its emotional first-round victory into a title-game run.
"We are relieved, happy and excited about moving on," Donovan said. "We'd like to get to the position we were in last year."