Florida continued its roll toward a Final Four appearance Saturday with a hard-fought, third-round victory over the Southeast’s No. 7-seed UCLA. UF got a game-high 21 points from junior Erving Walker, who netted 10 of those points during a crucial final four minutes in the 73-65 final. Florida held the lead for the majority of the second half but its advantage shrunk to just 66-65 after UCLA’s Joshua Smith connected on a layup with 1:34 remaining. The Bruins looked to have a possession to take the lead moments later but the Gators secured a crucial offensive rebound and Walker canned a long three-pointer to provide some breathing room. UCLA’s Tyler Honeycutt missed a three at the other end, and the Gators came down with the rebound again. Walker added a pair from the line to put Florida up 71-65, then sealed the win from the line with 20 ticks left on the clock. Vernon Macklin added 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting from the field for the Gators, who shot an even 50.0 percent from the field. Kenny Boynton, who exited after rolling his ankle late in the game, scored 12 for the victors and is expected to play Thursday in drawing the assignment to guard BYU’s star Jimmer Fredette. Florida had dispatched the 15- seed UC Santa Barbara, 79-51, in its opener and has now won 12 of its last 14 games. Both losses came to Kentucky, which defeated the regular-season champion Gators in the SEC Tournament title game. UF is making its 16th appearance in the tournament and holds a solid 31-13 mark in such games just four years removed from back-to-back national championships under head coach Billy Donovan in 2006 and ’07. Under Donovan, UF is 24-8 in the Big Dance with three Final Four appearances.
Fredette, the MWC Player of the Year and the nation’s leading scorer, once again proved why he’s the leading candidate for the Naismith National Player of the Year, pouring in 34 points and adding six assists in BYU’s convincing 89-67 victory against Gonzaga Saturday. The win allowed the Cougars to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1981, as the offense shredded Gonzaga’s normally stout defense to shoot 52.5 percent from the floor and bury 14-of-28 three-pointers (50.0 percent). Fredette had seven of those treys on 12 attempts. BYU also got major contributions from Jackson Emery and Noah Hartsock, who recorded 16 and 13 points, respectively, while Stephen Rogers scored 10. The Cougars also held their own in the rebounding game, thought to be a major advantage for the Zags, who won out by a 36-27 margin. BYU handled 14th-seeded Wofford in the second round, 74-66, after losing out in the MWC Tournament championship game to San Diego State, which also shared the conference’s regular-season title with the Cougars. BYU is making its 26th appearance overall and fifth straight in the NCAA Tournament, though the Cougars’ track record hasn’t always necessarily translated into success with a 14-28 record in this event.
Thursday’s game serves as a rematch from last season’s tournament when BYU took down the Gators in the first round, 99-92, in double overtime. The Cougars have won each of their three previous engagements with the Gators, having logged regular-season wins in 1959 and 1991.
Fredette continues to establish the Cougars as one of the top programs in the country this year, averaging 28.8 points per game, 4.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals with the third-most three-pointers (121) in the nation. His assists stand third in the MWC, while leading the conference in free-throw percentage (89.1) and knocking down 40.6 percent of this three-point attempts. Overall, the 6-2 senior shoots 45.5 percent from the floor and is averaging 33.0 points through the Cougars’ first two tournament games. Fredette is coming off a record performance in the MWC Tournament where he averaged 35.3 points per game on his way to tournament MVP. Emery, Fredette’s backcourt mate and MWC Defensive Player of the Year, helps to carry the load by putting up 12.6 ppg, 3.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.8 steals per contest. Emery’s 99 steals this year set a single-season school record in becoming the program’s all-time leader in the department, while his season average stands sixth in the country. The fellow senior added 89 three-pointers on 35.9 percent shooting. The Cougars shoot a collective 36.5 percent from three-point range. Hartsock checks in with an 8.6-point, 5.9-rebound average. He shoots 50.4 percent from the field. BYU’s overall offense ranks eighth in the nation in putting up 81.6 ppg. The Cougars’ scoring margin stands fifth in the country (plus-14.1) with a defense that holds opponents to 67.5 ppg. BYU could stand to improve a bit on a 45.3 shooting percentage but help its cause with the nation’s 10th-ranked free-throw percentage (76.3).
Florida has four double-digit scorers in the fold, and while none is considered a true star, the team-first approach has the club poised for a deep run in the tournament. Walker tops the roster in scoring with 14.7 points per game while adding 3.3 assists and 75 three-pointers on 39.3 percent shooting. The standout sophomore Boynton is tied with Walker for the team-lead in threes but at a 33.2-percent accuracy. He stands second to Walker at 14.0 ppg. The versatile senior Chandler Parsons provides 11.4 ppg and team-highs of 7.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He contributed seven points, five rebounds and five assists against the Bruins Saturday. Macklin stands third in the SEC in field- goal percentage (58.1) and averages 11.3 ppg to pair with 5.4 boards. Alex Tyus pulls down 5.7 rpg and adds 8.6 ppg to the mix. The senior was huge versus UCLA, grabbing a season-high 13 rebounds to go along with eight points. The Gators produce a nice balance on both ends of the floor to place fourth in the SEC in scoring offense (71.8 ppg) and second in scoring defense (62.8 ppg). Florida tops the conference in field-goal percentage (46.5) and is also the league’s top rebounding team with a plus-5.9 margin with 37.3 per game in addition to ranking second in both assists (13.9 apg) and assist/turnover ratio. One area of concern continues to be free-throw shooting where the Gators place ninth (67.1), though Walker helped to shed that label late against the Bruins.
Florida has the ability to trot out a new star every game, using the club’s wealth of scoring depth to overwhelm competitors. While Fredette is a cut above most players in the tournament, if his game is hindered by a tough gameplan or simply off a bit, the Cougars will likely struggle. To get to this point is an accomplishment within itself, but each round forces teams to step up and find new ways to win. Florida has a number of those possible scenarios, and will find one to pull out a close win and offset the effectiveness of Fredette.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Florida 77, BYU 74