The University of Florida men's basketball team has a few
days to forget about the SEC tournament and move on to its Final Four quest.
That journey begins Friday night in Austin, Texas, where Florida opens the NCAA tournament as a No. 3 seed against 14th-seeded Northwestern State at the Frank Erwin Center (7:27 p.m., truTV). If the Gators advance, they will play UCLA or Minnesota for the right to proceed to the South Region semifinals at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Florida was projected as a No. 2 or 3 seed heading into Sunday's SEC tournament championship game. The Gators lost 66-63 to Ole Miss after leading by 12 at halftime.
"We can't let this linger and affect us going into that first game of the NCAA tournament," UF center Patric Young said. "You can't sulk on it too long."
Despite the loss Sunday, Florida (26-7) had a strong case for one of the top 8-12 seeds in the NCAA field. In the first month of the season, the Gators posted decisive victories over Wisconsin (a 5 seed), Middle Tennessee (an 11) and Marquette (a 3).
UF was sixth in the RPI (Rating Percentage Index) entering Sunday and was ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll for most of the year.
"The whole season has prepared us for this moment, the NCAA tournament," guard Kenny Boynton said. "We know what we need to get better at. We're going to work. I think our confidence is still high."
Kansas is the No. 1 seed in the South Region, followed by No. 2 Georgetown, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 Michigan and No. 5 Virginia Commonwealth.
The Gators could see Georgetown in regional semifinals, giving the teams a chance to resolve their canceled season opener. They were scheduled to play Nov. 9 aboard the USS Bataan in Mayport, but the game was called off at halftime due to condensation on the court.
If VCU pulls off a surprise run and meets Florida in the regional final, Gators coach Billy Donovan would face his former assistant Shaka Smart, now the Rams' coach.
Northwestern State made national noise as a No. 14 seed in 2006 by knocking off third-seeded Iowa.
The Demons (23-8), whose campus is located in Natchitoches, La., earned an automatic berth this year by edging Stephen F. Austin in the Southland Conference tournament title game Saturday. They lost all four of their games against teams from the major conferences, falling to LSU, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Arkansas.
Florida struggled through the end of its regular season, going 3-3 down the stretch, then appeared to recapture its stride with wins over LSU and Alabama in the SEC tournament.
The Gators continued that momentum early against Ole Miss and took a 38-26 lead into halftime, but began crumbling shortly afterward. The Rebels (26-8) opened the second half with five quick points and tied it at 43 with 13:37 remaining.
Ole Miss was ahead 61-56 with 3:27 left, and the Gators fought to pull within 65-63 in the final minute. With 26 seconds remaining, UF forward Casey Prather stripped the ball from Marshall Henderson in the backcourt, though Erik Murphy missed the potential game-tying shot in the paint.
The Gators had one final chance to force overtime with Scottie Wilbekin at the free-throw line and 8.6 seconds remaining. After missing his first attempt, Wilbekin deliberately bounced the second one off the rim. The ball was deflected out to Boynton for a 3-pointer, but his shot rimmed out.
"It was a good look," Young said. "I think if it'd gone to overtime, we would have taken care of that game, but we didn't."
In addition to the defensive lapses, Florida shot 8-for-17 at the free-throw line and 37.3 percent from the field.
It was the third time this season the Gators blew a double-digit lead in the second half.
Henderson scored 18 of his 21 points in the second half and earned tournament MVP by averaging 23.7 points per game. Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway also hurt the Gators with 23 points and 10 rebounds.
Henderson felt vindicated by the championship and the individual honor, saying it was payback against the coaches who did not vote him to the All-SEC team in the regular season.
"All the other coaches out here are losers," he said. "They didn't win this tournament. We did. Maybe they'll be smarter next year."
Mike Rosario led Florida with 18 points and nine rebounds, and Boynton had 13 points on 5-for-11 shooting.
Ole Miss reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2001, landing as a No. 12 seed. The Gators are in for the fourth straight year and 13th time in Donovan's 17 seasons.
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